St. Catherine University unveils Expanding HERizons

Panelists speak at Town Hall event

(Left to right) Peace Sinyigaya ’19, Taviare Hawkins, PhD, and Anita Thomas, PhD, react to a question from the audience during the Oct. 5 Town Hall event.

Fundraising effort focuses on boosting underrepresentation in the Sciences for Women of Color

As the sun set on October 5, the pews of Our Lady of Victory Chapel filled with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and neighbors to participate in a town hall event moderated by MPR’s Kerri Miller. Seated onstage was Peace Sinyigaya 19, Anita Thomas, PhD, executive vice president and provost at St. Kate’s, and Taviare Hawkins, PhD, who oversees the departments of Mathematical Sciences, Chemistry, Physics and Biology at St. Kate’s.

The topic of the Town Hall: how to not just launch more young women and BIPOC students with science degrees, but how to support them throughout their academic careers and beyond.

Expanding HERizons is designed to attract and educate more BIPOC women in science, technology, engineering and math degrees as well as raise money that’s needed to renovate the university’s outdated science and technology facilities. The project plays to St. Kate’s strength in BIPOC numbers, with more than 40% of students identifying as BIPOC. It is why Anita Thomas shared the goal to double the number of women of color in science, technology, engineering, and math fields in the next five years.

As children, women of color enter what Hawkins called a “leaky pipeline.” The leaks persist and grow over time, in the face of pressures to maintain perfection at all levels. “There’s a lot of pressure to stay on course,” Hawkins said. Hawkins herself is one of only 100 Black women in the country with PhDs in Physics.

“We do an absolutely fantastic job educating women in the sciences and we also do a great job mentoring those students, which we know helps them succeed and move into STEM careers,” said Beth Halloran, executive vice president and chief advancement officer at St. Kate’s.  “However, the fact of the matter is some of our equipment is from the 1970s and our students deserve state-of-the-art facilities. We are aggressively seeking funding to accomplish that.”

“We need to double the number of BIPOC women leaders in science in the next five years because it’s critical they provide solutions to world problems that take into consideration the entire population and often differentially affect their own communities,” Thomas explained. “We are determined to be loud and bold about growing that number of women in STEM, and the number of BIPOC women in STEM, because the challenges we face as a nation and as a planet need innovative and diverse solutions which are interdisciplinary and holistic.”

Today, African Americans are significantly underrepresented in science fields like computer science, life sciences and engineering and Black women hold an even smaller percentage in the workforce. Black students are earning only 7% of the degrees in the STEM field.

The solution begins with putting more women of color into the science pipeline on their way to leadership roles.

“It really means we have to roll up our sleeves every day,” Thomas said.

Despite the challenges up against women of color in science, Dr. Hawkins sees progress on the horizon.

“This generation, they’re going to change the script,” she said.