By Pernell Mitchell
In December 2016, American moviegoers fell in love with the extraordinary stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. These African-American women were “Hidden Figures” who played a pivotal role in America’s victory in the space race, helping to launch astronaut John Glenn’s mission to orbit the Earth.
Following in their footsteps is FAMU graduate student Erica Morgan West, who in the summer of 2017 accepted a position at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. There she will simulate polymer materials for spacecraft, a giant leap in helping her to realize her dream of starting her own laboratory studying simulations.
West, a doctoral physics student in FAMU’s College of Science and Technology, works as a graduate research assistant in the laser remote sensing laboratory at the FAMU Center for Plasma Science and Technology. There, she focuses on working with a supercomputer to simulate different environments that allow her to determine how different materials behave under certain conditions at the molecular level.
Her skillset and passion for science and technology led her to receive international recognition as the sole representative of the United States at the prestigious 2016 MolSim session of the Centre Européen de Calcul Atomique et Moléculaire (CECAM) in Amsterdam.
CECAM is the oldest European institute for the promotion of fundamental research on advanced computational methods and their application to problems in frontier areas of science and technology.
West credits her success as an up-and-coming scientist to her upbringing.
“I think early on, probably when I was about 3 or 4 years old, I starting asking people about the stars and how they were able to stay in the sky,” she said. “So my parents and my grandparents started putting me in
programs to see if I really had an interest in space and if I was mathematically inclined. My love for science blossomed from there.”
West’s passion for science was further strengthened by the success of the adults in her life. Her father is a civil engineer. Her mom is a child psychologist. Her granddad is an agricultural engineer. Her grandmother is an English professor.
But like the women of “Hidden Figures,” West would have to overcome several obstacles in order for her talents to truly be appreciated. Those obstacles would cause her zeal for science to be shaken by an unexpected reminder of cultural indifference and the loss of a loved one.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Tennessee State University (TSU), West began her doctoral studies at an institution in the Midwest.
Unfortunately, during her first semester there, she experienced an unpleasant culture shock: She never felt comfortable with or welcomed by her colleagues.
“Being a third-generation TSU alumna, my family has a strong proud history of ‘Blackness,’ so I was well aware and proud of my heritage. However, my parents also taught me not to be inferior in spaces of any kind,” she said. “I have never considered myself to be a ‘Black woman scientist.’ I am simply a scientist. I know my capabilities and what I aspire to do, so I didn’t understand why others at my institution did not see that, but for a lot of them, they saw ‘Black woman,’ and because of that, I had something to prove before I was considered a ‘scientist.’”
During this time, West also lost her mother. She returned home to assist her father and left the institution with an uncertainty that she had never felt before.
“I had sort of lost my ‘juice’ at that point,” she said. “My confidence had been denigrated through hostile environments, and I no longer felt confident in my abilities as a student. I was defeated.”
She took a four-year sabbatical from her studies, but then found love and renewed inspiration.
“I met my husband during my time off. He really encouraged me to go back to school and finish my doctoral studies, and I’m so glad I did,” she said. She enrolled at FAMU, due largely to the desire to work with Lewis Johnson, Ph.D., then assistant dean of the College of Science and Technology and faculty researcher in the Center for Plasma Science and Technology.
“Erica has a high level of maturity. She genuinely cares about sharing her love of science with younger students. She has been a joy to work with and I expect great things from her in the future,” Johnson said, reflecting on his time as a mentor to West.
Thanks to support from professors like Johnson, West said she immediately noticed that the atmosphere at FAMU was remarkably different from other institutions. She had made the right decision.
“I walked in and was accepted for my capabilities,” she said, recalling her first day in her FAMU lab. “I walked in and the staff said, ‘Oh, your lab is over there.’ It was unexpected and I kind of waited for a minute, and finally I thought, ‘Oh, I can just walk in by myself?’”
While it was amusing at the time, West said the incident was a breath of fresh air.
“That doesn’t happen in other spaces because in other environments they don’t automatically assume that you’re competent. It’s a constant struggle to prove yourself, despite the fact that you’ve been admitted to the program. Here it wasn’t like that. And I knew I was right – I indeed deserved to be here.”
West is grateful for her FAMU experience and credits the University with helping her restore her confidence in her abilities.
“I remember this moment of epiphany I had when I first arrived at CECAM. All of a sudden I thought, ‘I totally belong here. I should totally be here,’” she said. She now feels compelled to share her story with youth interested in science, especially little Black girls.
“I’m learning that my story can help people,” she said. “I want people to understand that science is not just applied to a person because of what they look like – science is applied to someone because of what they do.”
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From A&M Magazine (Summer 2017 Issue)
The full issue is available here.