In January, Cell Mentor listed Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering Kelly Cross as one of the 1,000 Inspiring Black Scientists in America. In its note on the list, the selection committee, The Community of Scholars, wrote, “Black culture is distinct, and it has a heavy influence on American and global cultures. Likewise, Black talent is both ubiquitous and abundant, but the excellence of Black people is often obscured.” The list is intended to “dismantle the myth that outstanding Black scientists make up a small percentage of the scientific community.”
Cross, who joined the College in 2019 and focuses her research on issues of diversity in STEM and inclusive teaching practices, recently shared her thoughts on what it means to be recognized in this way.
What does it mean to you to receive this recognition?
"Given the reverberating cries for social justice from Black and Brown communities over the past year, this list gives our young people hope and helps them see all that they can become."
It was an honor to be recognized along with so many other prestigious Black scientists and scholars. Given the reverberating cries for social justice from Black and Brown communities over the past year, this list gives our young people hope and helps them see all that they can become. In engineering education, for example, we know that it is important to “see” yourself or identify as an engineer. Science is under a similar principle. You have to know Black scientists exist and see them in order to aspire to be a scientist. We all want a sense of belonging and to see ourselves in our environment. Growing up, I didn’t know any scientists or engineers, and during my entire engineering education, I never had a Black female professor. I want fewer students to make that statement. So, to me, the list is a reminder that we need to inspire the next generation of scholars of color and be a living example of excellence in science and engineering.
This list will act as an inspiration to the next generation of scientists. Did you have science or engineering role models when you began your journey?
I have so many – I don’t want to get into trouble. I am blessed to have had committed mentors, even when while earning an associate’s degree in chemical technology at Florissant Valley, a junior college in my hometown of St. Louis, MO. First, I will start with my academic father, Dr. who is faculty in the chemical engineering department at Purdue University. This relationship was pivotal because, as a junior member of his lab, I learned from the more senior students and had the opportunity to help design experiments. Also, Dr. Harris never made me feel “stupid”. He is a very intelligent man, but he was always willing to explain things to me until I understood. Furthermore, Dr. Harris obtained funding for me by introducing me to my academic mother Dr. Pamela Shaw, the LSAMP coordinator at Purdue. Through her programs, I was able to secure funding for summer research in addition to research during the semester as I was a non-traditional student living on my own and supporting myself. I won’t name all my Purdue academic family, but I will say Ruth Streveler also played a key role in helping me understand that the questions I had as an undergraduate student were good questions for engineering education research, the field to which I eventually migrated. Finally, my dear friend who transitioned in 2018 Schaunita Falter, helped me understand myself as a Black woman who happens to be an engineer, scientist, and educator. Schaunita exposed me to books I would never have read as an academic such as The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and My Life in Search of Africa by John Henrik Clarke. She exposed me to books that lead to intellectual and spiritual journeys I never imagined as a child, but those books grounded my racial and spiritual identities which are core to who I am and who I have become. Our ancestors told us to “know thyself,” and make ourselves the focus of intense study. If you don’t know who you are, it is difficult to frame who you can become.
In terms of graduate school, I was also very blessed to develop a family village at Virginia Tech. I will start with my Ph.D. advisor Dr. Marie Paretti, who guided me through so many things in the service of completing my dissertation while maintaining my moral values. Also. Drs. Stephanie Adams and Bev Watford are wonderful examples of Black female leaders in engineering education. I won’t list their credentials, it would take too long, but these women are always a source of inspiration and always a phone call away as I navigate my academic career. Holly Matusovich and Dean DePauw talked me through multiple battles of imposter syndrome and I will always remember their words. Two final key mentors for me are my pastor, Pastor Leslie Jones, who has taught me to use my voice for social justice and to pray without ceasing and Dr. LaVonne Neal, who taught me many things including how to negotiate. Most importantly, Dr. Neal taught me to lead with integrity and strength. In short, my academic and extended family have all played critical roles in getting me to where I am now, and more importantly, where I am going.
Your research and activities have, in part, been focused on equitable engineering education. In an ideal world, what will engineering education look like in ten, twenty or fifty years from now? What do you think it will take to get us there?
To achieve our desired goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion, I think we need to redesign our educational model. Like a true engineer, I think we must design systems to operate and function in particular ways. Our current educational model was based on racist and sexist ideology, and thus, is operating as it was intended. The ideal engineering education will be built on equity and valuing what is right, not just what is profitable. Future engineers and scientists will need to embrace the human impact of their work. A few things we need to include: 1) acknowledge our racist and sexist history; 2) truly value the diversity of lived experience as we develop technology and design solutions to societal issues; 3) explicitly teach ethics, social justice, and morality as key components of engineering education; 4) promote science literacy as we regain the public trust regarding research; and 5) engage engineering leaders in policy that will impact both our society and educational systems. We must strategically address the systemic issues in higher education broadly and STEM specifically.
What advice would you give someone hoping to follow in your footsteps? Alternatively, what is the best advice you have received?
The advice I would give to young developing scholars is (1) know thyself and (2) have a vision. Academic life is tough, so being grounded in who you are will be important as you develop. Know your role and walk in your conviction!!! For example, if you are a graduate student, it is not your job to fix the diversity issues on your campus. You can contribute to the solution, but your job is to graduate! Next, all your decisions and activities should reflect where you want to go, not where you are. Have a vision and be clear about your career goals. Various opportunities and distractions will occur but develop your plan and stick to it. Kujichagulia, (pronounced koo-jee-cha-goo-LEE-ah) or Self Determination, is the second principle of Kwanzaa. Define yourself for yourself, even if others don’t see it. Be intentional about research and collaborators, as they can determine your reputation.
"Let your work be your voice."
The best advice I ever got was to control your “controllables.” I cannot control the world or an academic institution, but I can control myself and how I flow within this academic world. Speak your truth and stay humble, is my approach. Let your work be your voice.