Q: Please tell us about yourself, your background and the path that led you to your career. Also, share with us some of the challenges that you faced and how you overcame them?
Ayalew: I grew up in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. I attended the Lycee Guebre-Mariam, a French-Ethiopian school where I developed my interest in and love for all STEM disciplines. Early on at the age of 15, I specialized in the Life Sciences as at that time, I felt that I was more likely to make a difference in areas like agriculture or health. As one of the top students, I was lucky to be awarded a scholarship to study in France where I continued with my Biology major. In my first year in France, one of my biggest challenges was to be so far away from home. For months, I had very limited communication with my family (remember, there was a time with no internet, and even no cell phones). Despite this challenge of a new cultural environment, I nevertheless succeeded, and, finished among the top students in my freshman class of nearly 300 Biology majors. Unfortunately, I witnessed first-hand that many friends and classmates stumbled at this transitional stage of their education, and I helped them as much as possible. By the end of my first semester, I was able to link-up with other students from my high school and we became each other’s support. I attribute to some extent my success in navigating this juncture to my strong preparation at home in Addis Ababa. It laid out the foundations for a lifetime since we were afforded a high quality education with a rigorous curriculum and very demanding teachers. To this day, strange as it may sound, I am often left with the feeling that I have not learned anything new since high school. As important as the science concepts and skills I had learned in high school was the fact that I remained focused on my goals. Last but not least, I would also add that my family environment helped to develop an intellectual self-confidence and strong sense of identity while attending an international school that provided us a global perspective. Ethiopian nationals were the majority of students, but some 40-50 countries were represented among all the students. I eventually earned my undergraduate degree (Ingenieur) and Ph.D.in Plant Cellular and Molecular Biology at the Ecole Nationale Superieure d’Agronomie de Toulouse and transitioned to US institutions for my postdoctoral research.
Q: Please share a few words about your faculty position and your research (as well as its importance in layman’s terms).
Ayalew: I recently was promoted to an Associate Professor of Biology at Spelman College, a Historically Black College (HBCU) for Women. I teach courses at the introductory and upper levels and conduct research mainly on antibiotic resistance in plants. People generally don’t associate antibiotic resistance with plants nor was it an area of study until we showed that a particular gene in a model plant species was responsible for antibiotic resistance. Plants can get exposed to a variety of antibiotics produced by soil microorganisms; it is thus important to understand how they deal with their toxic effects. More recently, my lab has shown that antibiotics affect the mineral content of plants - a facet with potential agronomic implications.
Q: In your opinion, how important are Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in: (1) the STEM education of people of color, namely African-Americans; and (2) in increasing the number of African-Americans in STEM professions and businesses, given that a very high number of African-American STEM graduates graduate from these institutions?
Ayalew: HBCUs have an impressive legacy and continue to play a leading role in the education of African-Americans. Several reports including those from the US Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (2011) and the National Science Foundation (2013) show that HBCUs are the leading institutions in awarding baccalaureate degrees to black students in the life sciences, physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering; and their students subsequently attain doctoral degrees at a higher rate than African-American students at traditionally white institutions. For example, Spelman is ranked as the No. 2 undergraduate institution of origin of Black Ph.D.s in STEM disciplines. HBCU students are also more likely than their counterparts at traditionally white institutions to pursue a postgraduate education and become professionals. When one walks on our campus one can quickly sense the genuine engagement of our students in academic matters. The overall academic and social experiences on our campuses result in increased well-being in life after graduation as captured by a recent Gallup poll (2015). Indeed Black graduates of HBCUs are more likely than black graduates of other institutions to be thriving in financial and purpose well-being.
Q: In your view, what unique challenges women of color face in STEM studies and careers that are specific to both their gender and race?
Ayalew: Unfortunately, it is precisely the combination of the two biases that women of color face in STEM: gender and racial bias. Early in their education and career, they may not be equally encouraged as their male/white counterparts when they show interest or even excel in science; they may see less mentors and role models that look like them. At later stages of their career their work or input may not be given the value that it deserves. Such subtle forms of discrimination represent a serious ‘cost’ to being a woman of color in STEM. In this regard Spelman College offers a unique environment for women of color interested in STEM. Not only do gender and race become a non-issue in the daily lives of students on campus, but the presence of a diverse faculty and role models as well as the mentoring and networking opportunities prepare them particularly well for their lives after graduation.