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The Spark

A candid conversation with Dr. Tonya Matthews about how she's helping our young girls lean into their STEM-based passions.

Dr. Tonya Matthews has the mind of an engineer, the heart of a scientist, and the soul of a poet. Her message for all women is simple: Keep your spark lit.

Dr. Tonya Matthews has a monumental task at hand. As the President and CEO of the
International African American Museum (IAAM) that opens in Charleston next month,
she is shaping a narrative that was created out of injustice, pain, and suffering with
“relentless optimism.” In many ways, this is the job she was born for, although she will
be quick to tell you that if you had asked her at 10, 20, or even 30, what she would be
doing today, she could not have given you an answer. 

Growing up, Matthews wanted to become a doctor and change the world. She has a
Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from John Hopkins University and a B.S.E in
biomedical and electrical engineering from Duke University, alongside a certificate in
African/African American Studies. “For me, it went from being a doctor, to building
things for a doctor, to educating people about building things for a doctor, to just
educating people,” she explained. We simply don’t evolve in a linear fashion. “But all of
that still harkens back to that fundamental ‘why’, in my case, wanting to change the
world. There is so much pressure to pick the perfect college major or conform to a
particular job description. Instead, leverage the space you are in according to your core
philosophy in life, your purpose or motivation, and then you will find that the other things
fall in place.”

That’s not to say it will always be easy. Matthews points to “perseverance plus passion”
as a factor in the success equation. “Anything worthwhile requires effort. Perseverance,
or ‘powering through’ only happens if you have passion. I have been in difficult
situations where, because my heart was in it, I could see what was on the other side.”
As for discovering what the passion is, Matthews says it’s a unique learning journey.
“Some of us come out of the womb knowing what our passion is, others run smack into
it or have a transformative life experience that puts it on the table. Once you have
perseverance and passion, all the other things--skills, training, networking, creativity,
strategy, and vision, follow.”

Where does that initial spark come from? Matthews credits her parents for giving her
opportunities - as long as she saw them through. Access and accountability helped her
quickly discern what set her heart on fire. While serving as President and CEO of the
Michigan Science Center, she founded The STEMinista Project and STEMinista Rising
to engage and support that spark in girls and professional women in STEM. 

“Young girls start taking things off the table for themselves between grades four and six.
The spark gets dimmed, especially around STEM interests. Maybe that’s because we
start teaching things a little differently, a little more subject specific, and gender norms
become more prevalent.” To counter that, she created a program that offers young girls
the opportunity to engage with female mentors and keep the fire burning. “I see that in young women who I speak with at times when they are thinking about jumping ship,
and it becomes incumbent on me to not let that spark go out.” The very act of listening
and being heard is essential to the process.

“I often get asked two spoken questions and one unspoken. The first continues to be:
'Can I have it all, the big-girl job and a family?' To which the answer is unequivocally, yes!
The second, because I work with a lot of women of color, is born out of ongoing
conversations about racism and bias. They ask, 'Will it get better?' My response is, don’t
focus on whether ‘it’ will' and instead on whether ‘I’ will get better. Manage what you
have control over, and you will find your ability to navigate those spaces improves.” 

The unspoken question goes back to the issue of listening, and here Matthews gets
serious. “You might not realize it, but young women are always looking to the
generation ahead for answers about everything, including themselves. And when you
take the time to listen to them, even during an informal chat in the grocery store, they
are actually asking you: ‘If you are talking to me, does that mean I am good enough?’ 
And the answer again is, yes.”

When it comes to her current position at the museum, Matthew celebrates that it is the
greatest use of her spark to date. Combining her love for education, storytelling, history,
and people, with all her left-brain math and science skills, Matthews fully commits
herself to this new role. And it's not lost on her that her own sisterhood of mentors have
been there for her. “There is something so powerful about the network of women who
have supported me, not only applauding but shrugging their shoulders with an ‘of
course it’s you!’ attitude.”

The work is just beginning. “I am still stunned and humbled to have this opportunity.
Here, we are authentically positioned to transform some of the most important
conversations we are having today--so being in this space is as much about
perseverance and passion as it is preparation.” By leaning into her spark, Matthews
is more than ready.

“Some of us come out of the womb knowing what our passion is, others run smack into
it or have a transformative life experience that puts it on the table. Once you have
perseverance and passion, all the other things--skills, training, networking, creativity,
strategy, and vision, follow.”