Dr. K. Renee Horton is an advocate for diversity and inclusion in STEM and works diligently in the community for STEM education, outreach and changing the face of STEM.
Dr. K. Renee Horton is the founder of Unapologetically Being, Inc. and is the immediate past president of the National Society of Black Physicists.
Responses may be edited for brevity and clarity.
Where did you go to school?
- Ph.D. Materials Science (with a concentration in Physics), University of Alabama, Birmingham, AL
Fun Fact: Dr. Horton was the first African American to earn this degree from U of A.
- B.S., Electrical Engineering (minor in Mathematics), Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA
What do you do right now?
I currently work as an engineer at the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, LA.
My primary job functions are as a Metallic and Weld Engineer for the Space Launch System (SLS) designed to enable deep-space exploration; the SLS will be the largest, most powerful rocket ever built.
My job is to make sure that the requirements that deal with the metals and the welds on the SLS rocket are satisfactory while we are building and integrating at MAF. My secondary job is interfacing with the materials lab prioritizing and providing insight into testing and reporting.
My outside activities and responsibilities include running my own non-profit founded in 2017, called Unapologetically Being, Inc. (UBI). UBI is an advocacy and mentoring organization taking action to help others to find their intersection between their talent and their passion which, I believe, brings about true happiness.
We take action day in and day out — organizing, mobilizing, educating and advocating so that those who want to be a part of STEM will have the chance not to just survive, but to thrive in the field of their choice.
We currently have two active cohorts of mentees and are working on building a third.
I recently became a children’s book author, creating a series titled Dr. H Explores the Universe, which includes subtitles for grades 3–6. Dr. H and Her Friends is a book about diversifying your networks and introducing other amazing people in the world. The latest series is for Pre-K and Kindergarten learners, Come Learn with Dr. H. Every book includes, Dr. H, the quirky scientist who has a passion for life, learning and living to her full potential. She travels with her special car, Bouchet Beetle, or BB for short.
My physics duties include serving as the past president (2018–2019) for the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP), this is after serving as president from 2016–2018. I was the second woman to hold this office following Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, 33 years prior. NSBP was founded in 1977 at Morgan State University, with the mission to promote the professional well-being of African American physicists and physics students within the international scientific community and within society at large.
What made you choose your STEM discipline in the first place?
I was once quoted as saying “I’m almost certain when my parents’ egg and sperm met, one of them said, ‘I’m going to be a scientist,’ and the other one said, ‘I’m going to make that happen.’ It was in my core.” As long as I can remember I wanted to be scientist.
When I played make believe, I would pretend to be a mad scientist with a sidekick. I was always asking for telescopes, microscopes and other cool scientific kits. My parents sent me to enrichment classes during the summer to flush out what I was interested in. During that time, I took a veterinary course, a computer programming course and an electronics course.
I was always in love with the stars and the universe as a whole and did a lot of reading and researching to satisfy my curiosity about life and nature. My love for science was sealed by my middle school teacher who loved science and loved teaching science. He reminded me of ZZ Top and rode a Harley.
He was the best science teacher I ever had and the only one I remember. He made me believe I was capable of doing science and that I was good at it.
When I focused on my love for the universe, I committed to working at NASA. I was in awe of the stars and wanted to be an astronaut to discover the world beyond. The path I set for myself was derailed at 17, when I learned I was hearing impaired, but as hard work and destiny would have it, I made a full circle back to my love and my passion of working at NASA.
I found my way to my current work as a result of an opportunity afforded to me while completing my dissertation at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. My summer work was funded by 2 NASA graduate fellowships: a Goddard Research Center Fellowship and a then a Harriett G. Jenkins Fellowship.
What’s one piece of advice you wish you had when you started your STEM journey?
Be persistent and don’t let others change your course or your dream.
My dream was derailed early in my academic career, when I was 17. I learned that I was hearing impaired and couldn’t be an astronaut, which I was actively pursuing.
Instead of being resilient and adjusting my course, I quit and walked away.
My life was full after I became a mother and a wife, but that ended in divorce and I was faced with having to make a choice on where to go, my choice was to go back to school and complete my education.
The second time around, I was persistent and when met with all types of adversity, I persisted and chased my dream.
Do you have any woman of color in STEM sheros? Who and why?
Several women of color in STEM immediately come to mind.
Apriel Hodari was my mentor and she taught me that you can make your way. She is an amazing physicist who pushed me to be better and to stand my ground when others challenged me. I am honored to now be her colleague.
Beverly Hartline because she challenged me early-on to fight for what I believe in. She goes for what she wants and her career is very non-traditional. Working with her has provided me with opportunities I may have not gotten if I hadn’t been willing to challenge her. Ironically both of these sheros are from the same period of time and opposite sides of the coin.
Jamisha Francis a biology student in the Virgin Islands who had a near death experience and is still pursuing her schooling. She is heading to grad school at Vanderbilt in the Fall. I admire her dedication and her persistence to go after her dreams. She may not know she is one of my STEM sheros, but she is.
My last two sheros are Dr. Mae Jemison and Katherine Johnson. I have had the opportunity to meet both in person and they are just as awesome in real life as they were in my dreams. Each of them personify excellence for me. Breaking barriers and soaring in places African Americans weren’t previously represented.
I look up to them for staying the course through all the adversity they encountered and for opening the door for me. I understand it’s their shoulders I stand on when I am breaking new ground.
What else are you passionate about?
I am passionate about my family, who mean the world to me. Being a mother and grandmother is part of who I am. They love me unconditionally and my love for them is endless.
I am passionate about changing the face of STEM through my stories and allowing other girls and students of color see that we can be whatever we dream.
I also love playing Mortal Kombat on Xbox as well; we’re very competitive in our household.
Why do you think it’s important to highlight women of color in STEM?
Representation Matters!! After writing and publishing the first Dr. H Explores the Universe book, I was amazed at the response from kids of color and their excitement to see someone that looked like them doing something cool. This translates to highlighting WOCinSTEM.
There is extra motivation when you see someone who looks like you not just surviving but thriving in STEM.
Are there institutions, groups or organizations you want us to shoutout?
Is there anything else you’d like us to know about you?
I truly believe that when you find the intersection between your talent and your passion you find your happiness.
Are there other axes of identity that also impact your life/STEM experience that you want to speak to (e.g. religion, sexual orientation, gender expression, ability status, neurodiversity, etc.)? How do these axes of identity impact you as a woman/girl/non-gender-conforming-person of color?
I have a hearing disability. It has changed how I move in the world and I know it impacts how others see me and what I have accomplished. It’s not a visible disability and not everyone realizes I have some difficulty in certain environments. I still get frustrated and I have been dealing with it for almost 30 years.
My hearing loss grounded me from being an astronaut, but it hasn’t limited my ability to soar when I put my mind to it.
Thank you, Dr. Horton, for being an important voice and leader for black students in physics and for creating ways for all people to feel included in STEM. Welcome to the #VSVillage!
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