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Roger Arliner Young, Zoologist

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In celebration of Black History Month, I will be sharing stories about the African-American experience in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

For today’s feature, I am sharing a post previously published at Urban Science Adventures! ©.

Dr. Roger Arliner Young was the first African-American Woman to earn a doctorate in Zoology. While an unlikely undergraduate science student, she was mentored by Ernest Everett Just, a prominent Black zoologist at the turn-of-the-other-century and for anyone familiar with African-American Black Greek lettered organizations, a co-founder of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.

Dr. Young’s story is interesting to me because I find myself particularly drawn to historical science leaders with whom I share an academic connection in this case an African-American woman who studied zoology. Her ground-breaking work was with paramecium and cells and in marine ecosystems. She is also the first African-American woman to publish in the journal Science. However, her scientific career was fraught with challenges. Her grades as an undergraduate student were unimpressive, but she was obviously brilliant. Her many mentors, prominent scientists at the time and white men saw past her grades and her life issues – she was caring for an invalid mother and had some mental instabilities. Initially she was enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of Chicago (1929) – the same institution Charles Henry Turner attended. However, she failed her qualifying exams – an important exam in Ph.D. programs. She was embarrassed and disappeared. Years later, she re-surfaced teaching life science classes at Howard University, her alma mater. However, things began to go sour there, too. She was dismissed from her position in 1937, but this time she turned the tables in her favor. She used the time to try for her Ph.D. again and was successful. She received her degree in 1940 from the University of Pennsylvania.

She continued to research and teach, but moved a lot from institution to institution. Eventually her mental distress got the best of her and she was hospitalized. Though she never experienced any big fanfare and success, she is very much a real Woman Achiever and Science Hero of mine. Her life is a personal testimony that hardships are not permanent barriers. That even the most ‘unlikely’ students can sometimes possess impressive scientific minds. Science is staffed by real people, sometimes fragile people who live with their imperfect lives. I realize that my slowly moving dissertation meter and the life issues I confront daily are a part of life but it that doesn’t mean I can’t accomplish my goals. I sometimes feel a little sad for myself because I am the last of my cohort who has yet to graduate. Even students who started years after me have defended and moved away and I am still here. I feel lonely and disappointed. But then I think, yes, I’m still here. I’m sticking it out. Yes, it is taking me longer, much longer, to finish than I or any of my professors intended, but like Roger Arliner Young, I am finishing. And it doesn’t matter it how long it takes. It is her indomitable spirit that I channel today and everyday and I near completion of my dissertation; and when it is complete I will dedicate it to her memory.

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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