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How self-discovery has paved Katrina Rice’s pioneering path as a Black woman in STEM

The United Nations has designated today (Feb. 11) International Day of Women and Girls in Science, “a reminder that women and girls play a critical role in science and technology communities and that their participation should be strengthened.” Katrina Rice has been a pioneer in STEM, not only navigating challenges related to gender diversity as a woman in a male-dominated industry, but also as a Black female in leadership.

Katrina Rice’s more than 25 years of experience in driving business transformations and global portfolio management includes pivotal roles as a computer programmer analyst at Lockheed Martin Energy Group and as an associate director at Bayer Healthcare.

Today, Rice serves as chief delivery officer at Mansfield, Massachusetts-based eClinical Solutions, a global provider of cloud-based enterprise SaaS (software as a service) and software-driven clinical data services.

Rice said her journey included a lot of self-discovery along the way.

“My parents weren’t college-educated people,” she said. “My mom was that wonderful, loving, traditional Southern wife, but I knew that wasn’t me. So I knew going to college had to be it.”

Originally enrolling at Alabama A&M as a marketing major — “I had no reason to choose marketing besides the fact that I had a cousin who was older who had a marketing degree” — Rice’s degree track took a different direction after she was told by as adviser that he thought she was in the wrong major.

Instead, he told Rice, you’re a technical person, so why don’t you try engineering and maybe some computer programming classes?

The rest, as the old saying goes, is history.

“I love telling that story because I think you need to be in tune with yourself and things that don’t light that fire. It’s OK to make a change. When the fire is lit, you’re really on fire and you do a lot of great stuff in your life. That’s how I actually ended up majoring in computer science, and I loved it.”

Here’s more from Rice about navigating challenges as a Black woman in a STEM field, the impact of diversity on innovation and problem-solving within her industry, and what she’s doing to pay it forward in sharing her story with young women to encourage them to explore science and technology fields.

You mentioned that going to Alabama A&M played a pivotal role in your life. How so?

Alabama A&M is an HBCU (Historically Black College & University), and it was there that I was surrounded by really smart and successful people who looked just like me. The challenge, of course, was that there were only two or three other women in most of my classes.

By the time I finished school and went out in the corporate world, I still didn’t see more people who looked like me. All of that helped me develop a mindset that I’m always having to prove myself — to make people realize that you’re not only credible but you know what you’re talking about — especially since I went to a small Black college, too.

But I was a really good programmer and even wrote programs for some of the guys in my classes, though they would never admit that. I like to tell that story because I knew I was good at what I do, so I was able to progress in my career, eventually earning my master’s degree.

Your resume includes work with several well-known companies. What was your first job after college?

I actually started my career at the Department of Energy. I had interned there at the National Laboratory, probably the very best experience I could have ever gained, and I learned a lot. After I graduated, I had a number of different offers for NASA, but I chose to go to the National Laboratory because I wanted to understand the science behind computers and why things work the way they do and how you apply that to things we do now.

I wanted that science because I didn’t want to just be a programmer, even though there’s nothing wrong with that. I just knew it wasn’t my career.

At the National Laboratory, I was doing programming and modeling for a group of chemical engineers, one of the hardest engineering fields. So, you have these cream-of-the-crop engineers and this little old girl who’s coming in there trying to prove herself. I was like, “Look, I am more than a programmer. You have to trust me. I know how to read data. I can write you concepts that do, I can use software. So, I continued to have to prove myself.

So where did you find support in such a male-dominated field?

I met a beautiful lady who had been at the job, but then she moved to another department, so she transitioned a little bit to me and really supported me. She was highly educated and had a master’s already, and she became my mentor.

And then one of the Ph.Ds [at the National Laboratory] was an African-American male, and he kind of took to me because we had something in common. He also didn’t have a lot of people that looked like him. He coached and mentored me a lot, as well. He also was very supportive of my career, and it when it was time for me to move on, he actually encouraged me and told me, “You’ve done an amazing job here for five years but try something else.” So, he was also supportive.

What was the most insightful piece of advice they gave you?

It was if you fail, just get up, and do it again. It’s OK. The other thing they told me was to just be who you are. Be authentic in what you do because people recognize others who are authentic and trustworthy. And be proud of who you are and what you’ve accomplished. Don’t apologize for where you came from — let that lead you to where you’re going.

How are you helping the next generation of Black females explore STEM opportunities?

The biggest thing for me is giving back, sharing my stories, taking the opportunity to be in front of people who look like me or who don’t even look like me — women and young girls that are trying to navigate what their life is going to be like. That’s a big part because telling your stories and being authentic is what resonates with people.

Today, I’m actually headed to a school here in my town. I was invited to speak because it’s Black History Month, so I’m going to speak with a group of 4th and 5th graders about Black history and STEM and being a woman. That’s what I love to do. Hopefully, that can make it easier for someone else. And then taking opportunities to be truthful and give feedback to organizations when I have an opportunity, even from a social perspective of saying what do we need to be changing?

What advice would you give to businesses about their diversity efforts?

One is to start recruiting at these diverse places you want [to see represented]. If you want diversity, you have to go where diverse people are, right? And take a hard look at where you’re recruiting at the school levels. There are a lot of state schools that are doing phenomenal stuff and a lot of private small schools that are doing phenomenal things, even your community college levels. Not everyone has the financial wherewithal to go an Ivy League college.

The other thing is to think about hiring within and how you can elevate the people that you have within your organization as opposed to all the time going outside to hire. It’s giving people a chance to prove themselves because sometimes under pressure, people that you never thought would rise up will rise up.

____________________

Katrina Rice

Title: Chief delivery officer, eClinical Solutions

Education: Bachelor’s degree in computer science, Alabama A&M; master’s degree in computer science with advanced applications, University of New Haven

Advice to others: Be OK as a woman about who you are. You can do whatever you put your mind to.


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