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One STEM Career Serving as an Example

A conversation with Woodrow Whitlow, Jr

Fields related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) offer big opportunities to be productive and have successful careers. But some students who might be interested in these paths have faced systemic barriers such as low-quality schools and discrimination. What does it take for an individual to overcome these barriers? What does that tell us about the potential growth society could unleash if it removed them?

In a recent conversation, we learned how getting students into college majors that are a good fit for them is important for growing incomes and the economy. Careers in STEM pay particularly well, a reflection of the benefits the economy derives from their output. Considering STEM careers can represent a path to success in the labor market, it is worth reflecting on the hurdles underrepresented groups face in studying STEM fields.

To gain some insight on this issue, I recently spoke with Dr. Woodrow Whitlow Jr. Dr. Whitlow is a giant in aeronautics, with a notable career at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He completed bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His career at NASA spanned decades, and he did everything from research on transonic dynamics for improving the stability of wings on aircrafts to serving as the director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center, the deputy director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and the associate administrator of NASA headquarters.

While I enjoyed picking Dr. Whitlow’s brain about space travel and the ways NASA’s research supports economic growth, it was also helpful to hear about what helped him push past the barriers and achieve his goals. Our discussion drew my thoughts to the ways we can re-create the programs and relationships that gave him the ability to realize his potential.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed. Listen to an extended version of this conversation.

Dr. Whitlow grew up in a good place for African Americans

Dionissi Aliprantis

I was wondering if you could just tell us a little bit about your background and your upbringing.

Dr. Whitlow

I'm a native of Inkster, Michigan. I always make clear that Inkster is near Detroit, but it's not Detroit. I have a good friend who worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and he was from Detroit. And I will always tell him that Detroit is Inkster's biggest suburb, and so I would call him the man from the suburbs.

A lot of great of things happened here during the days of slavery. What is now Inkster was the last stop on underground railroad for meeting enslaved people escaping to Canada. And, you know, we had a lot of firsts in Inkster. The first Black-owned and operated radio station, WCHB, was named for two dentists who started it: Dr. Wendell Cox and Dr. Haley Bell. That's the WC and the HB. The first African American supermarket chain was in Inkster. The first MVP of the Major League Baseball all-star game was from Inkster, Leon Wagner, who had his heyday right here in Cleveland.

Dionissi Aliprantis

So, that's an important one for you, right? You're a big baseball guy.

Dr. Whitlow

Yes. Yes. Oh, yes. I used to go watch the sandlot team that he played on before he went to the big leagues. Every Sunday, the Inkster Panthers…we would go up to the elementary school and they played it on the field there and–

Dionissi Aliprantis

And was that your Plan B if NASA didn't work out?

Dr. Whitlow

Oh, no. That was my Plan A! NASA was my Plan B. It's Major League Baseball that didn't work out (laughs).

Dionissi Aliprantis

Tough break.

Dr. Whitlow

Yeah, so my wife's uncle eventually became the country's first African American casino owner, Don Barden. He's from Inkster and he had the first Black-owned cable business. So, before there was a Comcast, there was Barden Cable Vision. The Marvelettes were my neighbors. They wrote and recorded Motown's first number-one hit “Please Mr. Postman,” which has been recorded many, many times by many artists over the years. So, they had Motown's first number-one hit.

So it was great growing up there. Like I said, a lot of history there. You know, we didn't have an abundance of things, but we never thought we had a lack of anything growing up.
I know much more about my mother's side of the family than my father's. That side of the family was from Georgia, and her father, my grandfather, left the family behind in Georgia to come north, to find work in an automobile factory. And he eventually took the job with Cadillac Motor Division of General Motors, found a place to live in Inkster, and sent for my grandmother and the children—my mother, my aunts, and my uncle.

When many African Americans came north from the South for factory jobs, there was a lot of segregation. And Detroit was no different. Some cities would not even allow African Americans to buy houses or even live in the city. And so, to find housing close enough to the factory and then still benefit from the salary—which was about $5 a day at the time—Inkster was a place that was open to African Americans.

The young Dr. Whitlow was inspired by NASA and space flight

Dr. Whitlow

Originally, I was going to be this world-famous chemist, and I actually had a periodic table of the elements when I was only about seven, eight years old. And I tried to memorize all the chemical symbols. So, that was my original Plan B, of course. Plan A still was going to be to play left field for the Detroit Tigers.

Dionissi Aliprantis

Let's be reasonable—I mean, clearly, that's got to be a Plan A.

Dr. Whitlow

Yeah. And so NASA started launching people into space and then I saw that and I say, "That's cool. That's what I want to do." And so I went and started reading up about the astronauts and somehow figured… I mean, maybe it was Neil Armstrong who had a degree in aeronautics and astronautics—from Purdue, I think. And so I decided I had to get a degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Purdue, and I had to then go to work for NASA. And then once I get that, then I would automatically become an astronaut (laughs).

Teachers being a part of his community helped to inspire his hard work in school

Dr. Whitlow

Nobody in the family had a lot of formal education. My uncle was the youngest of the four children and he actually became the first in either family, either in Inkster or back in Georgia, to graduate from high school. And my mother declared that all of her children would graduate from high school.

Inkster was segregated. And we're only about 6.25 square miles and divided in half—north and south—by Michigan Avenue.

And so we went to the Inkster Public Schools, and it was great because the teachers… most of them lived in the community. They were family friends, and you say, well, what motivated me? It was that my mother and father would tell us every day when we leave for school, "Don't go down there and embarrass us," because, you know, these are their friends who were the teachers. And so that's where we got the big motivation to excel in school.

Key support during Dr. Whitlow’s education included his teachers, near-peer mentors, and an MIT summer enrichment program

Dionissi Aliprantis

I thought read somewhere that the class before yours was really one of the first to actually admit a significant number of African Americans. So I would be curious to hear what your experience was like at MIT. I'm also thinking about the fact that MIT is a place where even very, very smart people can feel imposter syndrome, for reasons totally independent of race. It's just such an intense place. So I am curious to know in your experience. Were there any particular difficulties or if there were factors that made it welcoming?

Dr. Whitlow

Well, you know, before I even thought about a plan at MIT, I had spent the summer between my junior and senior years of high school at Michigan State University in a math program. During my high school years, my counselor knew of my interest, and he had wanted to be a pilot but he couldn't because he was colorblind. And I spent many hours in his office. The way his office is set, we could watch the planes; they were only about three miles from Detroit Metro Airport. We could sit there and watch the planes as they approached the airport or, depending on the winds, as they departed the airport, and talk about how the planes work and how they operated.

So, you talked about imposter syndrome. It was his idea for me to go to MIT. As he always would say, "Yeah, I'm going to send you to one of those big schools in the East." (laughs). And I was unsure if MIT was the place for me. But I'd say, "Well, I would go for a year and make him happy," and then I transfer (laughs).

Dionissi Aliprantis

Well, and then it turned out to be the place for you, right?

Dr. Whitlow

Yeah. It turned out that would be the place for me. I remember in the catalog, there was a statement that says: "Well, calculus is the language spoken in MIT." We didn't have calculus in the curriculum at my high school. Dr. Shirley Jackson was a graduate student and she was the one who really pushed the administration to start to admit more Black students. And so, I think the class before mine, there was about 53 African American students were admitted. My class had like 51 or 52.

And one of the great things that MIT did is they had a bridge program called Interface. And so, for students like me, whose high school math curriculum was limited as compared to, say, other incoming students, we went to MIT for a six-week summer program. We stayed on campus, we studied calculus, physics, chemistry, and humanities.

Doing that program and staying on campus and really learning about the rigors and what it would take to get through MIT, that probably was the most important thing that I did at MIT.

Dionissi Aliprantis

I'm curious to hear about some combination of your motivation, your experience, and, you know, where did you find support?

Dr. Whitlow

Well, I found support from my fellow students. One thing we had was, again, something that Dr. Jackson motivated. We had a Black student union tutoring program, and, you know, these were upperclassmen who had gone through the same thing that you were going through. One of the tutors was only a year ahead of me. Probably the brightest guy that I've ever met, who is now a doctor, Jim Gates. And so we had the tutoring program, which was good because there was, I think, only one other African American who was a year ahead of me, maybe two years ahead of me, who was majoring in aeronautics and astronautics.

It was a great opportunity to take advantage of the tutoring program that was offered and just to have the support of our fellow students. There was one student who was a little older than us. He had gone to Tuskegee, and then he left Tuskegee—I think he spent a couple of years in the army. And then he left the army and went to West Point for two years. And then he came to MIT, so he was a little older than us. He was a mathematical genius. Being a little more mature than us, he would always sit down and tell us, “You know, this is a great opportunity. Don't blow it.” (laughs). When somebody that you view as a fellow student tells you that, you tend to pay attention to it.

Dr. Whitlow thinks examples are powerful and that we should look for ways to inspire kids to get them excited about studying STEM

Dionissi Aliprantis

Based on your experience, when thinking about our school system, what are some of the ways that you think we could get kids more excited or motivated to learn STEM topics?

Dr. Whitlow

You know, we have lots of programs. NASA has lots of programs aimed at motivating and inspiring young people to pursue a STEM education and STEM careers. Having mentors, being able to see people that look like you and who you feel comfortable talking to about STEM education, about being an engineer. That's extremely important—having those examples.

And you know, we glorify our athletes. They're on TV all the time. And they're built up. I don't think we do that so much, say, with our engineers. Now, when I was coming along, one of the greatest things you could be was an astronaut, you know? I mean, they were true American heroes. And to say, "We're going to the moon," that was something that certainly inspired me. And, you know, I didn't see any African Americans (laughs) as part of the program—even though later on I learned, of course, we had major roles in the space program.

Just seeing something that excites you, that puts that spark in you. You know, we can have all the programs in the world that say, “You really ought to do this. You ought to consider being an engineer.” But when you could see something that makes you say, "I want to do that" without somebody else saying, "You really ought to think about doing that." That's a huge difference. I had that internal motivation of “This is what I want to do.”

Hal Martin and Andrew Zajac contributed to this article.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the participants and do not necessarily represent the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Woodrow Whitlow Jr.
Dr. Woodrow Whitlow Jr.

Special Liaison to the Technical Director
National Aerospace Solutions, LLC

Dr. Woodrow Whitlow Jr. is special liaison to the technical director at National Aerospace Solutions, LLC (NAS). He had a distinguished career at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from 1979 until his retirement in 2013. He held several executive leadership positions at NASA, including associate administrator for mission support at NASA headquarters in Washington DC; director of research and technology and director of the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio; and deputy director of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Before joining NAS, Dr. Whitlow was executive in residence at the Cleveland State University Washkewicz College of Engineering. Dr. Whitlow earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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