Interview with a Geek: Q&A with Knatokie Ford

Last year, the White House kicked off a public outreach campaign to support the future of science and technology (S&T) innovation in the U.S. “We the Geeks" is a series of Google+ Hangouts in which various topics are presented by Administration officials and private sector leaders. Topics include turning science fiction into science fact and the contributions of African Americans to S&T innovation.

Fellow Knatokie Ford, 2012-14 Executive Office of the President, served as moderator of one of the sessions, “We the Geeks: Celebrating Black History Month.” This hangout intended for viewers of all ages featured African American STEM innovators and STEM-education advocates who shared their personal stories and thoughts on how people “can step up to help strengthen America’s STEM-skilled workforce by making it broader and more diverse.”

View the hangout "We the Geeks: Celebrating Black History Month," 2/25/2014

What was the goal of the event?

The goal of the event was to highlight the amazing stories of some prominent and promising African American scientists and engineers, and to shine a light on the importance of ensuring that the nation’s next generation of inventors, discoverers, and innovators fully reflects the diversity of America. The event was intended to be inspirational but also informative. Retention is a big issue, particularly in undergraduate programs. The panelists were transparent about some of the challenges they faced and were able to overcome. This aspect of the “STEM journey” should become a more prominent part of the conversation, and hopefully, if more students are aware of the setbacks and obstacles that others before them faced (and were able to get past), it might provide additional encouragement to persist. It was also great to have a parent talk about how she is getting her children engaged in STEM at such a young age. Parental involvement is really important, and unfortunately I don’t think there is a broad awareness of some really great mechanisms to nurture the imagination of children by participating in STEM competitions and programs.

What was your role in this event?

The “We the Geeks” Google+ Hangout series is fairly new at the White House, so I was really excited to have the opportunity to use this platform to highlight the importance of diversity in STEM and share the stories of African American innovators and trailblazers. I served as the team lead for this project. I wrote up the concept for the episode and pulled together a list of potential participants that included recommendations from other OSTP colleagues. After finalizing the line-up and confirming panelist participation, I mapped out the “run of show” for the episode that included prep material (i.e. sample questions) for the guests as well as talking points for the framework of the discussion and other key topics that we wanted to touch on. As the liaison between the panelists and our White House team, I was responsible for distributing technical information, logistics, and any other pertinent preliminary information. I also served as co-host for the episode, which was a lot of fun!  

What skills were developed or new opportunities opened up as a result of your work on this event?

This event allowed me to strategically design a “conversation” on a topic. We had a fantastic line up of speakers that represented a nice distribution of people at various stages in the STEM pipeline. It was important to carefully craft questions that would touch on key issues in the course of time we were allotted. I also had to view the episode from the vantage point of the audience and ask myself, “What are the major messages or themes that I want viewers to come away with?” It was a little like being the conductor of an orchestra! 

It was a great opportunity for me to have the experience of participating both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. This represents a beautiful marriage of something I hope to do more of in the future – communicating messages of motivation and inspiration, particularly on the issue of diversity in STEM. This experience has already created another public engagement opportunity, as I recently participated in a video urging fellow “geeks” to visit www.healthcare.gov and enroll in healthcare. I hope other opportunities will arise as a result of this!

“My biggest personal takeaway is that social media is such a powerful tool... [It] can be a great medium to raise awareness and stimulate interest in STEM among wider audiences.”

Knatokie Ford

What is your main personal takeaway?

My biggest personal take-away is that social media is such a powerful tool, and I’m extremely honored to work in an Administration that has fully embraced it. As a person who has firsthand experience as an “underrepresented minority” in STEM, it is especially important to me that the significance of this issue be elevated to broader audiences. It shouldn’t be restricted to the scientific or even the policy communities. Social media allows us to expand the dialogue to audiences that were perhaps unaware that the dialogues existed! I have received great feedback from people who had the chance to watch the episode, some of which have been perfect strangers and non-scientists. The demographics of the U.S. are changing; the reality is that if the U.S. is going to achieve the President's goal of producing one million additional STEM grads over the course of the next 10 years, the nation must tap into a more diverse talent pool.  The STEM workforce of the future should better reflect the diversity of this country – the global competitiveness of the United States literally depends on it. Social media can be a great medium to raise awareness and stimulate interest in STEM among wider audiences.

From an event-planning standpoint, I learned how powerful and fun it can be to go with the flow of “unexpected moments.” There was a point when one of the panelists (Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi, Florida Institute of Technology) was “photo-bombed” (or in this instance, video-bombed) by his son while he was speaking. It was kind of hilarious and reminded us of an aspect of Dr. Oluseyi as not only a renowned astrophysicist, but also as a father. Towards the end of the program, the “Cool Pads Kids” interjected their saying, “We’re cool kids and we have cool pads. We’d like to let all kids know they can be awesome in athletics and science!” This was unscripted and totally organic, so our reactions were genuine. It was fantastic. It’s a really important message and I believe the fact that it was delivered by kids between the ages of 9 and 11 made it even more potent! Presenting examples of minorities not only participating in STEM, but also exceling in it is a great way of enabling others to envision themselves in these fields.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to encourage people to watch the video from start to finish. The guests had some amazing stories that are worth hearing! I’d also like to reiterate some of the “charges” I made in the video:

1. To everyone engaged in STEM at any level – from student, to professor, to professional – I encourage you to GET INVOLVED. Become a mentor. Seize opportunities to share your story in any size venue. We all can play our part, and each one of has the potential to make a difference.

2. To STEM students of all colors, if you feel like you’re struggling in any capacity (academically, emotionally), know that you’re not alone! Talk to someone, utilize resources, and be diligent in finding a mentor/role model. Each of the panelists is a living testament of the fruit of persistence and hard work.

Click to learn more about the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships.