Building the Bionic Woman

I was shielded from stereotypes during my young and impressionable years. I didn’t realize they existed until maybe middle school, and by then, I’d already decided I wanted to build the Bionic Woman.

I was always drawn to ‘techy’ stuff, but I also liked what people would consider typical girly things. I would just as quickly ask for a RadioShack kit as a Betty Crocker oven, and get both. I learned to solder at the same time I was playing with dolls (not necessarily Barbie, although I did collect them for a while and have some that are quite valuable). In the third grade, I started programming in BASIC on a Commodore 64 computer in the basement.

I wanted to build the Bionic Woman!

By this time, I was a total sci-fi nut. I would watch anything in that domain: Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Wonder Woman. There was one show I particularly liked: The Bionic Woman. I thought the concept was ingenious.

Middle school was also the time when everyone started to ask, “What do you want to do in life? What do you want to be?” It wasn’t a nurse or a teacher, which were the typical roles. I wanted to build the Bionic Woman!

*   *   *

College is when I learned about stereotypes. If I really think back on my childhood, there were times when I faced stereotypes, but I was confident (or naive enough) that I didn’t see it then. As an adult, I still deal with stereotypes, but I’m confident enough to not even care. But in college, through graduate school, and in my first few years at NASA, stereotypes were ubiquitous, and confidence was not my friend.  College was my awakening period.

I chose a university where I could major in engineering. I attended an orientation program for which minority students were invited to show up the weekend before the other freshmen arrived on campus. I loved that weekend. I met friends I have to this day, and they helped me deal with the world I was about to face.

At JPL, everyone had a master’s degree, so during my junior year I decided that I would get one, too.  I wasn’t considering a Ph.D., because I wanted to be in school for as little time as necessary. I decided to work at JPL while going to graduate school because I knew I would need that ego boost.

My transformation back into that confident, 12-year-old girl started during graduate school. Oh, trust me, the stereotypes were still there, and the confidence took a while to grow back. But I also found hope, in my adviser, in my lab mates, in my JPL colleagues, and in the fact that the graduate school courses—OMG—were easier than my undergraduate courses. When I made a straight 4.0 GPA my first year, I thought I was lucky. When I received a Ph.D. fellowship, I thought I must have been the only one who applied. When my first conference paper was accepted, I thought that no one actually read it.

Words can break a person or lift a person up. It’s taken me years to realize that. Words can be swords, or they can be salvation. Somehow, despite that, I became the successful person that I am today, and I now claim that loudly.

*   *   *

I was 1 year out from earning my Ph.D. and had just won my first NASA grant. I arrived at my team-kickoff meeting to find one guy sitting in the room. “They moved the secretaries’ meeting down the hall,” he said. I held out my hand and said, “Oh, you must be so-and-so. I’m Dr. Howard. I’m running this meeting. Welcome to my team.”  I smiled widely as he turned slightly red and shook my hand. I had my confidence back.

How did I get it back? It wasn’t a magic bullet. It wasn’t a near-death experience. What was it then? It was teaching and mentoring others.

Today I’m a full professor, holding an endowed chair. I’m associate director of research for the robotics institute at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. I’m chief technology officer and founder of a startup. I still run outreach camps for K-12 students, even a robotics camp for children with disabilities. In my spare time, I teach Zumba to older adults and kids.

Yes, I still face stereotypes, but now they don’t bother me as much. In fact, I sometimes take those moments to call them out, to make people think about why they have those stereotypes. Every so often, in the dark of the night, I still get those twinges of self-doubt. But now I can just close my eyes, breath deep, and tell my own self, “You’re the coolest.”

Life inspires clinical applications

Elsewhere in Science, 10 October 2014