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Birmingham’s Science Sisters Are STEM Standouts

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From left: Jamilah, Hadiyah and Ayannah Page outside Ramsay High School on Birmingham's Southside. (Ameera Steward, For The Birmingham Times)
By Ameera Steward
The Birmingham Times

As in many industries, there are hardships that come along with being in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) field, particularly for people of color. As young Black women in STEM, the Page sisters, Jamilah, Hadiyah, and Ayannah, have careers that are far more than just jobs.

“To me, being a Black woman in STEM means there is little space for self-doubt,” said 23-year-old Hadiyah. “You have to be consistently sure of yourself … in the sense of even understanding that when you make mistakes and things aren’t perfect that is part of the process.”

— Jamilah, 26, the oldest graduated from Auburn University this year with a Ph.D. in nutrition, with an emphasis on community nutrition and public health; she will start a new job as an assistant professor at Berea College located in Berea, Kentucky, in August.

–Hadiyah, 23, the middle sister, graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) this year with a master’s degree in public health, with a concentration in maternal and child health care and policy; she will begin attending Ross University in Barbados in August to study interventional medicine.

–Ayannah, 21, the youngest, graduated from Tuskegee University this year with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry, with a second concentration in biology.

All of the Page sisters attended Ramsay High School in Birmingham and completed their undergraduate studies at Tuskegee University, a historically Black college and university (HBCU) in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Their mother, Desireé Ruffin Page, said if she had to sum up how she feels about the accomplishments of her girls in one word, it would be “blessed.”

“I feel blessed that they are high achievers, … blessed that they’re go-getters, blessed that they see something in our family that makes them want to keep striving,” she said. “I know there are so many obstacles out there for women first, and then even more for women of color. … To see them not letting [those obstacles] stand in their way and just strive for the best, I feel blessed.”

The family also has a 14-year-old brother, Nicolas, who attends A.H. Parker High School.

When their father, William Page, passed away in 2005, Desireé said there were times when she felt bad for her children, but they were fortunate to have their uncle, Jeremy Page, who stepped up.

“He’s been there for them, … so they didn’t totally miss out,” Desireé said. “It just made me want to be there for them even more because [their father] was gone, and they didn’t have that sounding board around. … We’ve had to make some concessions, but I think I’ve done my best to be there for them.”

“I tried to instill in them that whatever you put out you’re going to get back,” she added. “I believe in the law of reaping and sowing, so be careful about what you put out. I think [my children] have tried really hard not to put out the bad stuff, so they can continue to reap a good harvest.”

Overall, Desireé is most proud of the drive and determination her daughters have.

“They don’t take no for an answer on anything,” she said. “At this point, I just give them the benefit of my experience, but they’re driven. … I tried to instill in them that, even though life might throw a few curve balls, education is always something you can fall back on.”

Desireé is an accountant who not only encouraged her children to be mindful of fitness and health but also but also served as an example of healthy living. Every morning, she would wake her children with exercise, jogging place, in particular. She was always sweating, and she always made sure her children took their vitamins and went to the doctor.

“She would always be jogging, singing. Oh my gosh, she would sing, and she still tries to sing us awake. It’s always the same song,” said Hadiyah, right before she and her sisters began to belt out “Let the Good Times Roll” by Three Mo Tenors.

The Page siblings grew up in Midfield, where they still live. The three girls shared a room until Jamilah went to sixth or seventh grade.

“If we weren’t in the same room, [mom] would sing loud enough for us to hear her no matter what room we were in,” Ayannah said.

Jamilah added, “Oh yeah, you heard it when she came down the hallway.”

“Head Held High”

From left: Jamilah, Hadiyah and Ayannah Page outside Ramsay High School on Birmingham’s Southside. (Ameera Steward, For The Birmingham Times)

For Jamilah, the oldest, being a Black woman in STEM in academia means going into the room knowing that there may not be many faces that look like yours.

“What I have to remember is that when I go in there, … whenever there’s a decision that you’re trying to make for my people, I need to step in at all times,” said the Berea College assistant professor of nutrition.

“That’s what being [a Black woman in STEM] lets me know: Someone can be at the table, even if that’s me, and that person has to be confident and know that what they’re saying is being received,” Jamilah said. “You have to walk in there with your head held high because it’s a different world.”

Although the Page sisters understand the importance of having confidence when walking into a room, it doesn’t mean they don’t endure the hardships that come with being a Black woman in the STEM industry. One of those hardships is that there aren’t many Black women in the field, said Ayannah, adding that she believes that’s what motivated her and her sisters to attend an HBCU.

“It’s an environment where we’re not only welcomed but also celebrated,” she said. “We got to see more of our people doing what we wanted to do, and we had a lot of encouragement coming from our departments. … Being at an HBCU really made us see that things are possible for Black women in STEM.”

Jamilah agreed, saying that when it comes to STEM there’s little representation. Also, when it comes to nutrition, there’s an image of someone who is not a minority trying to tell someone who is a minority what to eat or telling them that their cultural foods don’t matter, that they’re not important, or that they’re against everything a person needs. It’s important to have someone from the African American community help those from the community feel more comfortable and understood, she said.

“There are obviously not that many people that look like us [in the STEM field], and it’s even harder for us to get there, but the reward is what matters so much because people see you as an inspiration or see you as [someone they can trust],” Jamilah added.

Hadiyah added that another hardship or struggle is imposter syndrome, the inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills. Overcoming this and all the other obstacles encountered by Black women in the STEM industry involves a certain mindset, Ayannah said.

“We’ve been raised to believe that we can do anything we set our minds to, so that’s the most important factor,” she explained. “The second is our village. The people that have been around us have really motivated us and kept us going. We’ve been able to lean on them if we needed any support or anything.”

“We also have each other, so I think that’s how we’ve been able to get through.”