FSU Alumni and Affiliates in STEM

Diverse Voices: Vanessa Figgers

Here at Diverse Voice in STEM, we’re continuing to share stories about the degrees and careers of FSU affiliates. As the Circulation Supervisor at Dirac Science Library, I have the access and opportunity to discover some great academic finds. I was pulling book materials for the Women’s History Month Display and came across one of the garnet color-bound dissertations in our collection. Something made me open it and upon reading the title, I literally gasped aloud. “Influences Encouraging African American Women’s Choice of Mathematics as a Career: A Generational Account” was simply typed yet so impactful then as well as now. I knew I had to not only display this work but follow up and find the author, Vanessa C. Figgers, Ph.D. Thankfully, I did find her and she was gracious enough to do an interview. Please enjoy.

Could you give a brief overview of your background including where you’re from and how you began your academic journey?

I was born and raised in DeLand (Volusia County), Florida.  I initially wanted to be a medicinal chemist or pharmacist.  When I was in elementary school, I saw a chemist on tv who was making “concoctions” which ran through tubes and flasks.  I thought that was cool.  I took the traditional college track courses in high school (including chemistry).  When it was time to go to college, my choice changed, and I decided to major in mathematics.    I entered Florida A&M University (FAMU) in the late 70s (after my 11th grade year) and majored in mathematics.  I had great instructors and mostly African American.  That was new to me.  I had few African American teachers – and no African American math or science teachers prior to attending college.

The most notable thing is that in the department at FAMU, there were African American women mathematics professors. My first college mathematics class was with one of these women, the way she taught made topics that students normally struggle with, even Calculus – so simple.  At that time, we were on the quarter system and not semesters, and I took her classes every quarter for the first two years.  She was my mathematics advisor and became my mentor throughout my college career and even into my professional career.  Years later, I was offered her position when she moved into an administrative role.

Your dissertation is about the influences that encourage Black womens’ choice of mathematics as a career. What influenced you to persue a career in STEM? Also were there factors that made you choose education over a non-teaching career?

I chose mathematics because I thought that the major would serve me well once I graduated.   To be honest, my mother suggested it.  She was a retired teacher and thought that math could be applicable in several professions.  In addition to mathematics, I took several computer programming courses as well. I loved programming.

The acronym STEM was not on the radar as it is nowScientific calculators for students, microcomputers, cell phones did not even come out until after I graduated from college and began working.  We had to use charts in the appendices of the textbooks to do certain math problems.  For the programming classes, we worked on mini-computers.  As a matter of fact, for registration of classes, we used punch cards. 

The factor, (if it is called that) that made me choose teaching was that the summer after I graduated, I was approached by someone who asked if I would be interested in teaching.  I took up the offer.  However, this also meant that I needed to go back and get training in teacher education – which is important.  My first three years I taught mathematics and computer programming in high school as well as part-time on the community college level. 

It is important to note that when I went to graduate school, I took the required teacher education courses but also more (graduate) mathematics courses. This allowed me the opportunity to be able to teach both in a mathematics department and/or teacher education department.  Also in graduate school, I was a computer programmer for an engineering department for a while.  As a project for one of my graduate courses, I designed a computer program that could be used by math teachers in the classroom.

What was the hardest part about your doctoral work?

The hardest part about my doctoral work was family/work/study coordination.  I was teaching full-time – and had been teaching for several years before I began my doctorate.  In addition, this was also the time when my children were very small – and even in the making (smile).   It was a mathematically logistical challenge that my husband and I would work out as he was also teaching school.  The last year of my doctoral program, I was afforded some release/sabbatical time from work and that really helped. We made it.

In the 25 years since you completed this work, what would be your assessment of Black women in mathematics?

I think that African American women have made great strides in mathematics.  Since the year of my degree (1997) there are many who have not also earned the degrees but are making marked differences in many areas of industry (medical, financial, technological, etc). There are now mathematics job titles that were unheard of when I was in school.  I did not know of any women in mathematics (or did not know that’s what they were doing) when I was growing up.  The issue is that there were African American women succeeding in mathematics many decades earlier than 1997, but they were either not publicized, recognized, or that their work was not deemed anything to mention. They were not in the history books, nor in the encyclopedias.

With the rise of the internet, it helped.  By the time I completed my doctorate, there were websites that highlighted women such as Hypatia, Etta Falconer, Marjorie Browne, etc. It is sobering that Katherine Johnson (Hidden Figures) was almost a century old before most ever heard of her; and that was because another woman, Margot Shetterly, did the research.  

I found your dissertation quite by accident while pulling books for our Women’s History Month display. What are your thoughts on your work and career so far and what are your plans for the future?

Since I began,  I am now approaching 40 years.  I have been given some great opportunities.  I have worked at several universities (in two states) on the undergraduate and graduate levels in mathematics and in teacher education.  I have also served as Department Chair, Coordinator, Director, Co-PI on grants; and as Instructor, Assistant Professor, and Associate Professor. 

From all of this, I think that I will always want to teach a course or two.  I am also interested in students being exposed to mathematics in careers before high school- hands-on.  Another area of interest is the evidence of mathematics in the arts.  In reference to the acronym STEM, to be honest I like STEAM.  There are many gifted artists/designers who are excellent mathematicians who apply many simple and complex mathematical concepts with precision.  

These, in my opinion, are some prime candidates that intuitive and creative teachers can influence to go into mathematics.  A few years ago, with grant funding I collaborated with an art professor, and we created a summer workshop for girls incorporating math and art.  It was a success.  This is where I would like to put some of my time.

This post was written by Shaundra L. Lee, Circulation Supervisor at with Access Services & Delivery at Dirac Science Library.