Shirley Malcom, senior advisor to the CEO and director of the SEA Change program at AAAS, is being honored this week by her alma mater with a building dedication – the first building at Penn State to bear the name of a Black woman.
Malcom, who earned her Ph.D. in ecology in 1974 from Penn State, is recognized for her outstanding accomplishments in her professional career, including advocating for the advancement of women of color in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM).
“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.”
“The work of a pioneer requires blazing a trail that has not yet been cultivated, pushing forward into the new and unfamiliar. It takes knowledge, ingenuity, and fearlessness — traits personified by Malcom,” according to the nomination letter from Penn State Outreach. Malcom was also co-nominated by Penn State’s Eberly College of Science.
“Her life’s work represents an unfaltering and demonstrated commitment to equity and inclusion in the sciences,” the letter continued.
A Trailblazing Career
Malcom’s career is grounded deeply in her own experiences growing up in the segregated South. Inspired by the Sputnik launch, she was interested in science and excelled at it. Yet she found that her under-resourced schools in Birmingham, Alabama, did not adequately prepare her for studying science as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. She sought help from a teaching assistant – the only Black graduate student in the chemistry department – and improved her exam scores.
“It was then that I learned that we were underprepared, not incompetent. I now knew that talent is developed,” Malcom said in a 2020 conversation with the AAAS Member Community.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Washington, Malcom went on to complete a master’s in zoology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a doctorate from Pennsylvania State University.
She joined AAAS in 1975 as a research assistant inventorying programs around the country that were working to bring minorities into science. The following year, she co-authored the first report on women of color in STEMM: “The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science.”
It was the beginning of a long career at AAAS focused on intersectionality and inclusion. Malcom headed the AAAS Office of Opportunities in Science between 1979 and 1989 and served as head of the AAAS Education and Human Resources directorate for nearly 30 years before leading a new initiative called SEA Change, which addresses the systemic problems of sexism and racism in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.
Unlike so many diversity, equity and inclusion programs that have focused on elevating individuals, SEA Change instead puts the onus on institutions to transform themselves.
“After spending decades learning about these interventions and yearning for a systemic approach, finally there’s the opportunity to help put one in place. And so that's what we have with SEA Change: something actually challenging the structure of the system itself,” said Malcom in 2021.
Honoring Her Work
“I was totally overcome,” said Malcom of the news of the building dedication. “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.”
The renaming is not the first time that Malcom has been honored by Penn State. A member of the Penn State Graduate School Diversity Review Team, Malcom received a Distinguished Alumni Award from Penn State and has served as commencement speaker for the Penn State Eberly College of Science and as a featured speaker for the Penn State Forum.
Malcom’s other honors and appointments have included serving as a member of the National Science Board, the policymaking body of the National Science Foundation. She also served as a member of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology from 1994 to 2001.
Malcom is also a recipient of the Public Welfare Medal, the highest honor given by the National Academy of Sciences in celebration of leaders who use science for the public good.
“We’re thrilled that Penn State selected Shirley for this honor, given her decades-long work as a trailblazer in the scientific community,” said Sudip S. Parikh, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. “As a valued member of our leadership team, Shirley continues to make a mark by championing our efforts to ingrain diversity, equity and inclusion in the scientific enterprise.”