For the month of February, the Nautilus Marketing Team will feature interviews with organizations and institutions working to increase opportunities for young Black people to imagine and succeed in STEM career paths—and we’ll donate 10 percent of all new member subscriptions toward their initiatives.

Black representation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields totaled only 9 percent in 2021, as reported by The National Science Foundation.

Wilbur Walters was fascinated by plants. Before he was the Dean of a scientific college at Jackson State University, or getting Ph.D. in materials engineering, he was introduced to the wonders of biology by his scientist parents. He began his earliest studies “figuring out what life was doing around me—going outside every day to investigate the bugs that started chirping at 5:30 in the morning.” 

Jackson State University is a historically Black university known for its College of Science, Engineering, and Technology—and is presently helmed by Walters. We talked with him about his role as an educational leader and activist, the potential of AI to create a more equitable society, and how he sees greater Black representation in STEM fields as transformative to community empowerment. 

In Body Image
Wilbur Walters is the dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology (CSET) at Jackson State University. Photo courtesy of Jackson State University.

What inspired you to become a scientist in materials engineering and physics, and eventually an educational leader in science?

My mother was a biologist, and my father was a scientist as well. And so from an early age, there were plants and stuff all around the house I took a strong liking to biology and plants. It was just a part of our conversations growing up. 

So I was like, “hey mom, I want a chemistry set!” There was a lot of support around me in doing that. And that’s one of the things that I know is important—no matter what you want to do. It’s about you finding something that you’re passionate about, and having people around you that can support it.

As the dean of the College of Science and Engineering at Jackson State University, what are some of your goals for young people pursuing careers in STEM?

You can transform communities in so many different ways. So many times, it just takes one person graduating from high school—one person graduating from college—one person making it. And that’s transformative. For families, for wealth, for communities. I also see it as a way to change cities, states, and regions.

The representation in STEM fields is colossally disparate—the National Science Foundation reported that in 2021, Black representation in STEM fields totaled only 9 percent. From your perspective, what more might be done to address this disparity?

As you say, it’s 9 percent—and then in some areas, it’s somewhere around 1 percent or 3 percent, and then when we start talking about female participation in some areas, it’s even lower. And it’s staggering, you know, the amount of years that have gone by at those same numbers. 

The most important thing is exposure. I used to tell young parents to expose children to something as simple as computer science. Then they’ll be able to go and tell their kids: “Hey, I want you to major in computer science.” It literally is about exposing a group of people to something at a high level. 

It’s about you finding something that you’re passionate about, and having people around you that can support it.

For instance, consider artificial intelligence—we had industry 4.0, when everybody was thinking about how we’re going to integrate automation into our lives with the whole Internet of Things. Now, we’re talking about industry 5.0, which is about how we do the human-machine team process—where we know we can’t take the personal side out of machines. 

And so we got smart, right? We realized that AI will doom us if we’re not there. But you’ve got to let all communities know about these things. People aren’t necessarily aware of the technology that influences their lives. They might hear about it—social media has been a kind of leveler, because people can get information. And the more opportunities that we get to level the playing field, the more we would do for communities that we say are underrepresented, or lack resources. A lot of times, it’s just knowledge. 

Certainly no one organization or institution can address a systemic imbalance that affects a global inequality set in course by millennia of history. I wonder—do you see an acceleration of change?

I do. And it doesn’t come in one particular space. We’ve seen it through social media, through social movements across the country, where it’s changing in thought patterns. And I think that there are things throughout history that—like, when Barack Obama is voted in as president—you can talk about. People say, well, we created a lot of divisions—or did we create a lot of awakening? And so you start to see other things happening. The first Black female on the Supreme Court. These things matter. Immediately, we see that things just explode. It starts to get people thinking that “I can.”

The workforce is so dominated by STEM fields. Now that that software has actually eaten the world, to quote the famous prediction by Andreessen Horowitz, how do you regard the importance of equal access to these careers—as far as political representation, cultural changes, and generational empowerment?

Highly regarded. Whenever there’s a change, if you’re going to move people along the economic line, that’s the biggest piece. They’ve got to play into the markets—they’ve got to be a part of it—because these things change every 10, 15, 20 years. 

What’s important today is not going to be important tomorrow, but right now, technology is the driver. The days of somebody opening up a toaster with a screwdriver to fix it are done. Everything is programmed. At the grocery store, now you’re checking yourself out. Jobs that we used to have are becoming non-existent. Those jobs are there regardless of whether we say that they’re small, or whatever. But they’re paying the bills for somebody, or it’s a part-time job, or it’s a student that just needs to give themselves confidence. 

So people have to be a part of the conversation and know where the jobs are going. It’s important to forecast the jobs of the future—now.

Some theorists posit that automation could be the great equalizer, eliminating unnecessary jobs and potentially opening access to academic or creative labors, but it seems that maybe that’s not quite how it’s playing out. Do you think AI could improve equality?

Oh, it absolutely can. AI is just like nuclear power. You can use it for good, and you can use it for bad. 

For instance, you can get rid of some of the jobs that are hard labor. I’ve seen it in factories. But we have to make sure that we are having conversations with everybody about the jobs that will exist. And it’s so easy not to.

AI is just like nuclear power. You can use it for good, and you can use it for bad. 

We assume that only the jobs that we know now exist. But once you automate, there are going to be other jobs. When we create new jobs, we can create new opportunities—we just have to be the things that automation and robots can’t be now: creative. We were given that piece. And so we have to make sure as people that we keep that right, to be creative.

There are so many philosophical and ethical and moral questions here. If AI can so easily accomplish basic human communication, and possibly even emulate emotion or art, how can that be transformative to our experience of the human condition? 

There are some jobs that we do that we don’t have to. Just like the bulldozers—and all of these instruments that we built—so we don’t have to carry rocks to build a pyramid. So I think that there is this opportunity to look at jobs differently. We have to have that conversation around having open minds to what that looks like.

One last question. How do you see the role of historically Black colleges and universities as drivers of larger change in STEM fields?

One of the biggest things is: How do we use the platform of the STEM opportunities to build bigger and better societies and communities? That’s my biggest driving force. 

Technology is going to continuously change. And the more we can get people to accept change—but also accept that there’s some responsibility with that. Like with nuclear power, there’s always that human factor side of it that we have to be totally mindful of. And I think that’s one of the roles of historically Black colleges and universities.

Interview by C.L. Croft.

Lead image courtesy of Jackson State University.