Leading the Way: A Conversation with Cori Lathan
Take one woman with multiple higher education degrees in difficult and male-dominated fields, add a highly successful and recognized career as an engineer and entrepreneur, top it all off with founding influential programs and serving on boards with life-changing missions, and what do you get? In the case of Dr. Corinna (Cori) Lathan, you get a dedicated, passionate, giving individual who is making a real difference in the lives of countless individuals and society as a whole. We recently spent some time talking to Cori Lathan about her background, her passion for her work and belief in supporting others, and how she contributes to the mission of increasing the involvement of women in STEM fields. When Dr. Lathan says of her contributions to women in STEM, "I feel like the best is yet to come - I can do better," it makes us both grateful for her important impacts and excited for her positive influence in the future.
An Engineer Making a Difference
Dr. Corinna Lathan co-foundedAnthroTronixin 1999, a research and development firm committed to optimizing the interaction between people and technology, of which she is currentlyBoard Chair and Chief Executive Officer. AnthroTronix specializes in the development of advanced interface technologies such as wearable computing and robotic control systems. In addition, she foundedAT KidSystems, a spinoff of AnthroTronix, which distributes alternative computer interfaces and educational software.
Cori's work with children with disabilities and robotics has been featured in Forbes, Time, and The New Yorker magazines as well as led to such distinctions as Maryland's"Top Innovator of the Year," MIT Technology Review magazine's "Top 100 World Innovators," and one of Fast Company magazine's "Most Creative People in Business." She has also been named a Technology Pioneer and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and is currently on their Global Agenda Council for Robotics and Smart devices.
With a B.A. in biopsychology and math, an S.M. in aeronautics and astronautics, and a Ph.D. in neuroscience, Dr. Lathan is actively involved in educational outreach programs that empower women and minorities in science and technology. Her involvement includes:
- Founder ofKeys to Empowering Youthfor junior high school girls
- Advisor to theFIRSTandVEXrobotics programs
- Board Member of theNational Black Child Development Institute
- Board Member ofEngineering World Health, supporting the emergence of healthcare technology in the developing world
- Advisory Board Member ofAmman Imman- Water is Life
Getting Involved Early On
When recounting how she became interested in advocating for women in STEM, Cori said, "I had a rude awakening in graduate school at MIT when I realized that there were only two women in my entering class for the PhD." Until that time, Cori had not given it much thought-she was just pursuing the work she loved. "I was just doing what I wanted to do, what I enjoyed. I started out in undergrad math and science because I loved it." Her PhD program was in neuroscience, but she wanted to work in a multidisciplinary lab at the Center for Space Research, which was mostly aerospace engineering, a place with very few women. "During the January 'independent activities period' in probably my second year at MIT, I decided to recruit some middle school girls to visit and see some of the cool things we were doing in the labs at MIT." This activity turned into the "Keys to Empowering Youth" program, still going on today as a year-round program run out of the public service center at MIT throughSWE at MIT, and includes information on stereotypes and careers. Lathan later brought the program to Catholic University when she was on the faculty there, and the University of Maryland. Lathan says "through those outreach activities I got more into the literature and research on gender and stereotypes, and became a lifelong advocate for women and minorities in STEM."
Growing as a Mentor
Lathan sees her contributions to women in the STEM arena evolving with her career. "The Keys program really impacted a lot of kids, but I feel like I can do more," she says. "With Keys, we're not trying to turn them all into engineers or STEM professionals, it's more focused on empowerment." Cori also spent a lot of time with the FIRST robotics program and kids who are heading for STEM careers. She worked with FIRST to help them on diversity for a year, and she attributes this experience to helping her make the transition to mentoring individuals. Lathan says "I am very proud of the individual accomplishments of people I mentor who are actually working in the field."
Efforts to increase the participation of women in STEM fields have changed for Lathan over the course of her career. She says "my interest and involvement has evolved from pre-college outreach towards more mentoring of college students and young professionals." Cori is now participating in the NASA "MUST" mentoring program (Motivating Undergraduates in Science and Technology). She talks enthusiastically about mentoring a student majoring in computer science at Spelman College, how the student has visited her lab, and how they keep in touch by phone and email.
Lathan also does a lot of speaking at student-related STEM programs and tries to serve as a role model. "Now that I have young children, I've worked with my daughter's Lego robot team. It's interesting to help my own children become aware of these stereotypes and how to overcome them." For example, she tells a story of a very bright girl on the Lego team who was continually self-deprecating and a little boy on the team who wouldn't let her do programming even though she was great at it. Cori had to figure out how to make sure they both had a chance to do it, and learned how to apply some of those concepts in the real world!
Advice on Giving Back
Lathan reminds those of us working to increase the participation of women in STEM fields that it's not only young women who need encouragement. As women leave college and grad school they still need the support of other women and female colleagues. "We need to continue to support each other, and it's harder as we go out into the workforce. Your support network of women gets diminished as we move out of the academic environment, so that's a challenge for all of us," says Lathan. "My strategy has been to actively support other women in my professional circle, including peers as well as junior colleagues. We sometimes forget that people who are well along in their careers also need support." She believes it is important to find your individual passions and support women in those activities who share your passion.
Lathan continues to support women in a variety of ways beyond individual mentoring. "My contribution to women in STEM is ongoing-it's my ability to mentor, write recommendations, and help people get internships or experience." In looking toward the future, Lathan says "as my experience grows, my ability to help others grows."
Joining the board ofEngineering World Health(EWH) recently gives Lathan new opportunities to contribute, and she believes this may end up being where her biggest impact really is. This group sends college students to developing countries every summer for eight weeks to fix medical equipment. Cori notes that the impact on the communities is "huge, of course, but the impact on the students' empowerment, their ability to problem-solve, and their outlook on the world is just stunning." That is where her main focus is right now. "It's harder for me to focus on just women in some of my current roles than when I was in academe, so I try to be supportive of women in programs that have a broader focus." The EWH program is not just for women or addressing the needs of women, even though it includes many women. Through mentoring Lathan believes she can have more of an impact on individual women.
On the Horizon
Lathan sees a continuing need for WEPAN and other outreach and mentoring programs for women in the future. "I think there will always be a role for WEPAN, even if we reach gender parity in terms of numbers, because the needs of women will always be different from the needs of men in STEM careers." She believes there will still be a need to advocate for women, empower women, and support women to change the paradigm in which we work. For example, Lathan mentions that there wasn't a need to change the paradigm for women in academe to allow them to extend the tenure clock until there were enough women in those roles, and now men can benefit, too.
Through programs like FIRST and Engineering World Health, Lathan believes women can see the incredible impact they can have through STEM careers. She also believes that if girls can see that impact it will resonate with them and the rest will follow. Cori Lathan closes by saying, "for me personally, I hope that I'm able to have that impact on the next generation and be a role model to show that impact in what I do." We believe she already does.