Photo/Merrick Cousley Photography Courtesy of Ayanna Samuels
We are closing out Women’s History Month with a spotlight on Ayanna Samuels, who in 2005 became the first Black woman since 1972 to earn a Master's Degree in Aerospace Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She is also the only Caribbean woman to author a chapter in the successful 2016 Book entitled “The Internet of Women: Accelerating Culture Change (Innovation and Change in Education)," which features women from over 30 countries.
Since completing a dual Master of Science in Technology Policy and Aerospace Engineering from MIT in 2005, Ayanna Samuels has played an integral role in helping to shape the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector in the Caribbean region. Ayanna marries her passion for aerospace, information and communication technologies, and human development to help bring access to basic human needs for all - in the Caribbean region and beyond.
When did you become interested in Aerospace?
In the early years of my primary level education, I had a keen interest in exploring new realities. When I told my parents I wanted to become an astronaut, they made me feel that was possible. Back then, I did not know how rare that ambition was because I was raised to believe this career path was as possible as any others I could dream of.
By grade seven, it became a well-honed ambition that was extremely hard for anyone else to question. More so because the people who mattered most believed in me.
MIT has a low acceptance rate. How did you feel when you were accepted to one of the most selective schools in the world?
I was elated when I gained admission to MIT. I will remember that day for the rest of my life. It was March 17, 1998 and I was the only person directly from Jamaica in the class of 2002.
How was your experience at MIT?
I had a phenomenal experience rubbing shoulders with the best of the best. But it was also difficult as the only Black woman in my Aerospace Engineering cohort. This was the very first time I questioned myself.
In Jamaica, I had seen a Black female prime minister. Women are viewed as no nonsense. We get things done. I did not question my intelligence as a Black woman; however, at MIT, racism raised its ugly head. It was easy to question whether I belonged.
It is a bit sad that the place that could have cultivated me in the most intimate way to believe that I could break all boundaries was the place where I did not always feel that, and where some tried to remind me of their belief of where I should be. I had to fight tooth and nail to find the mental strength to make it through.
You pivoted from aerospace engineering to international development. How did your interest in international development come about?
I applied for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study in the UK in the final year of my undergraduate studies. Although I did not receive it, the question that was asked as part of the application process, “How will your presence on the planet have made it a better place?” got me thinking very seriously about my legacy.
During my graduate studies, I looked at how we can engineer satellite communications systems to bridge the digital divide and bring access to basic human rights for those at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. I looked at it from a technical, policy, and financial lens.
I know this technology can have a massive development leapfrog effect. So that is what I became passionate about.
What type of development work do you do?
After completing my graduate studies, I returned home to Jamaica and launched a consultancy practice. My newfound ambition opened the door to work with different governmental agencies, NGOs, multilateral and private companies which were developing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) policies and initiatives as a vehicle to help reduce poverty, create new sources of income for the poor and improve access to basic human needs like health and education services. I have also had opportunities to live and work in Trinidad and Tobago and Switzerland where I worked with a distinguished UN agency.
Over the last 18 years, I have worked as an international development consultant, coordinating research and managing ICT projects for global clients focused on improving the Caribbean region, including the World Bank, Caribbean Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Caribbean Association of National Telecommunications Organizations (CANTO), and the Latin America and Caribbean Network Information Center (LACNIC) among others.
I was able to bring the best global accreditation, homegrown knowledge, and a combination of local and international context to my work, which has afforded me the opportunity to build my expertise in the Caribbean region and globally.
Photo/Merrick Cousley Photography Courtesy of Ayanna Samuels
How has your struggles as a Black woman in STEM shaped your ambitions?
My experience made me see firsthand the lack of diversity in this space. For this reason, gender equity in the global STEM sector is top of mind for me. I have delivered numerous international talks on the topic to continue to build awareness and bring about change.
I am currently pursuing a PhD at Oslo Metropolitan University in Norway. The focus of my PhD is understanding the ways in which we can promote more gender inclusive innovation ecosystems.
When I look at where we are today compared to where we were 30 years ago – I am shocked to see that in some instances, we are worse off in terms of gender equity in the digital sphere. We throw money at aspects of the problem, which are not where the problem originates.
What’s next for Ayanna Samuels?
I would like to apply my PhD learning within my own development agency or in a leadership capacity within an organization like the United Nations. I want my work to have an impact and lift the tide in regions like the Caribbean - making sure that technology can bring greater access to basic human rights for all.
I also want to be a living example and plant the seed of belief in the minds of children in our region, including my darling daughter, that success at the highest level is possible if you are committed to doing the work. Being able to do that work, and doing it well, is absolutely instrumental for me.