Penn State will honor scientist and advocate Shirley M. Malcom, whose pioneering work has helped open doors for women of color in the sciences, by naming a building at Innovation Park in her honor on April 8, 2022.
The 329 Building at Innovation Park will be renamed “The Shirley M. Malcom Building” in honor of Malcom, who earned her doctorate in ecology from Penn State in 1974.
The dedication reception will be recorded and livestreamed by WPSU and available for viewing through the Outreach website or Outreach Facebook event from 2:20-3 p.m. on April 8.
In 1976, Malcom co-authored the landmark report, "The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science," which brought attention to the challenges of being a Black woman in the sciences. Over her long career, Malcom has been a leader in efforts to improve access of girls and women to education and careers in the sciences and to increase the use of science and technology to empower women and address problems they face in their daily lives.
Malcom works at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where she is senior advisor to the CEO and director of the SEA Change program. She is a former member of the National Science Board and served on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under former President Bill Clinton. She is a recipient of Penn State’s Distinguished Alumni Award as well as the Public Welfare Medal, the greatest honor given by the National Academy of Sciences to leaders who use science for the public good.
She serves as co-chair of the Gender Advisory Board of the U.N. Commission on Science & Technology for Development; and of Gender InSITE, a global campaign to improve the lives and status of girls and women.
“Honoring Penn State pioneers and innovators has long been a part of our institutional identity,” said Penn State President Eric J. Barron. “In that spirit, I’m very pleased that the ‘329 Building’ will now be known as the ‘Shirley M. Malcom Building.’ As a noted scientist, a former presidential appointee, a leading advocate for representation in the sciences for women and girls of color, Dr. Malcom is an inspiration to those who follow in her footsteps.”
Malcom said she was deeply moved by the recognition.
“I was total overcome,” she said. “I’m honored. To have been plucked out for that recognition — I am humbled, I really am, and I hope that I can be worthy of that.”
Vice President for Outreach Tracey D. Huston noted that “For more than four decades, Dr. Malcom’s voice has amplified the importance of inclusion in fields where it has historically been underrepresented.”
“Dr. Malcom actively seeks to create environments that provide girls exposure to the sciences, with the goal of granting them the foundational knowledge they will need to thrive in higher education,” Huston said. “Penn State values and shares this commitment, recognizing how profoundly Dr. Malcom’s advocacy has strengthened the sciences over the long term. For that reason, Penn State Outreach, in collaboration with the Eberly College of Science, was delighted to nominate Shirley for this well-deserved honor.”
Tracy Langkilde, Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science, said Malcom was instrumental in instituting the National Science Foundation’s Broader Impacts criteria, promoting the idea that policy change can promote access and inclusion as well as excellence in science.
“She has subsequently used her platform to develop programs that advance education in STEM, improve public understanding of science, and broaden the pool of talented scientists,” Langkilde said.
Malcom said she hoped she would be a role model in showing young people the many paths a career in science can take.
“It’s OK to use your science for a lot of different things,” she said. “It’s OK to dream and to try to make those dreams real, and not to be limited by what other people think of you or expect for you.”
Malcom, who lives outside Atlanta, grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where she attended segregated schools. She left the South to attend the University of Washington, where she received a bachelor’s in zoology, and UCLA, where she earned a master’s in zoology.
At Penn State, where Malcom enrolled to be closer to home, she said she was deeply influenced by H.B. Graves, the professor who served as her doctoral adviser.
Graves was “a white guy from Mississippi,” Malcom said. “But because of his knowledge and understanding of the South, he got me. He understood that I was coming there with all kinds of challenges and experiences in terms of my early education. I will be forever grateful for someone who believed in me and saw me and challenged me to be whatever my best self was.”
Malcome said Graves told her, “If you want to do research, you’d be a great researcher. If you want to be a teacher, you’d be a great teacher. But whatever you do, I’ll be proud of you.”
“Someone who gives you permission to be whoever you become — that’s a powerful notion,” she said. “He freed me from the beginning. That’s an incredible gift, and I will forever thank him.”
Both as an undergraduate and graduate student, Malcom said she felt isolated as one of very few Black students, and never had a Black professor. She met her future husband on her first day at the University Park campus, where he was one of only a few Black students standing in the alphabetized line to register for classes.
“Finding a path through that isolation was not easy, and I worry that too many students are still experiencing that isolation in the STEM fields,” she said. “Some fields look like they always did.”
Malcom’s determination to see universities do more to bring about change led to the creation of SEA Change, the mission of which is to “inspire, guide and support voluntary transformation of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine fields in colleges and universities so the community-building, work, products, and practitioners exemplify excellence, equity, diversity and inclusion.”
“The notion of this effort is to transform institutions — the policies, the programs, the practices,” she said. “What does that look like on the ground? It looks like changing everything. It looks like asking questions of everything.”
While noting the institution has more steps it must take, Malcom praised Penn State’s Millennium Scholars Program, which recruits and supports high-achieving students from diverse backgrounds who are planning to pursue doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and math fields and careers in scientific research.
“You’ve got to have intentionality, you’ve got to be aware, and you can’t be color blind,” she said. “These young people are experiencing the campus in very different ways.”
Research shows that diversity and inclusion efforts lead to opportunities, innovation, and excellence that benefit institutions and society, Malcom said. For example, women are more likely to invent solutions to problems faced disproportionately by women.
“So not having women as members of startups and boards means a lot of stuff is being left behind,” she said. “Our science is not as good if you do not have diversity among those who are doing the science and the agenda setting.
“It’s important to put it out there: We gain from this. We do better. It’s absolutely critical to shift that narrative," said Malcom.