A profile of IU professor Sharlene Newman in celebration of Black History Month
Any glance at the demographics tells us that African American women are among the least represented of any group in STEM disciplines. Such is true in the field of psychological and brain sciences, where Sharlene Newman is the only African American professor in her department. It is even rarer to find black female professors in the sub-field of cognitive neuroscience.
Yet, the path to science was in many ways etched onto Sharlene’s future. From kindergarten on, it was clear to all her teachers that Sharlene was just plain good at math and science. “You should be an engineer,” she was told, so often that it became an undisputed fact, something she “didn’t even have to think about.” Add to that the mesmerizing talents of a young uncle, who “once built a radio for class and could fix anything.” To which her response was simply, “I want to do that.”
At the same time, the issues of African American life and history, as they extend back in time and into the future, remain ever-present around her. Like a set of interwoven threads, her own history intersects with some of the most iconic people, places and events of African American history, as it unfolded in the tiny southeastern Alabama town of Abbeville, where she grew up.
“We can only go so far back, before we bump up against slavery and then it’s over,” explains Sharlene.
The known family history goes back four generations. Her great, great grandfather, Judge Newman, was a slave, sold as a child to an Abbeville plantation owner. His father was white and likely to have been the mother’s owner. “That’s where we’re stuck at the moment,” she says, though they hope to identify the father through DNA testing, and from there, the plantation where his mother was sold.
Judge’s son, J. B. Newman, grew up to be an early civil rights activist. President of the local NAACP, he worked tirelessly for voting rights and other causes, marching a group of veterans twice a month to the court house, to insist on their right to register. He was, she adds, “maybe even a little radical,” – for example, signing up for the Ku Klux Klan newsletter, just so he would know what they were up to. Sharlene pictures the mailman doing a few double-takes at the mailbox upon delivering these newsletters. “He would look and say what?’” she laughs.
In 1944 her great grandfather took up another cause in the pursuit of civil rights: the failure to convict six white men for the gang rape of 24-year-old African American Recy Taylor. To pursue the case, he called on a woman whose name is now synonymous with civil rights: Rosa Parks, who was then working at the NAACP in Montgomery.
Parks lived in Abbeville as a young child, so the Newman family knew her family. She returned to Abbeville to investigate Taylor’s rape, one of a series of incidents to which she sought to bring justice. Ten years later, she would set the Montgomery Bus Boycott in motion – and ignite a movement – by refusing to give up her seat to a white man. Yet as historians have observed, she helped lay the groundwork for the boycott and for civil rights itself many years before, seeking justice for Taylor in Abbeville and for other victims of rape across the region.
But back to Sharlene’s story.
The family activism continued. Like her great grandfather before him, Sharlene’s father, Emory, Jr., was head of the local NAACP. He was also the first African American on the school board and the first to lead it as well. “We grew up that way,” explains Sharlene. “My family was always very involved. They did not have a lot of formal education. They were farmers. But they had a sense of independence, and because they owned a significant amount of land, were respected in the community.”
Abbeville itself was a racially diverse town with comparably large black and white populations. (Currently its population is 54.4% white and 41.4% African American.) The schools, as well as its teachers, reflected that diversity. Sharlene graduated at the top of her class and received a scholarship to Vanderbilt University, where she majored in electrical engineering and mathematics. She later went to graduate school in biomedical engineering with a concentration in medical imaging. That led to an interest in the brain and a postdoctoral fellowship at Carnegie Mellon in psychology focusing on cognitive neuroscience.
The rest, you could say, is history. Hired by the IU Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in 2004, she now directs the Cognitive Neuroimaging Lab and the IU Imaging Research Facility. In January 2016 she was appointed associate vice provost for the Vice Provost’s Office of Undergraduate Education.
The Newman family saga, however, continues, along with its political activism. “We’re all fascinated by the history,” says Sharlene. “And it explains some personality traits.”
Looking ahead, Sharlene’s daughter Morgan (right), now a junior at Vanderbilt, grew up in Bloomington and her childhood is a stark contrast to Sharlene’s. Gone was the racial diversity and the steady encouragement of teachers. (In the 2010 census, Bloomington is 83.0% white and 4.6% African American.) Where Sharlene was never afflicted with racist name-calling, Morgan encountered it repeatedly. Yet, the experience has sparked in Morgan an activism and a sense of justice, all too familiar to the generations before her, as well as an interest in politics around the world with respect to women of color.
In keeping with those interests, Morgan and Sharlene, along with IU professor Maresa Murray and Bloomington High School North student Phoebe Powell, conducted a study last summer examining the implicit bias that pervades K-12 school experiences of black girls in Bloomington. They also produced a video in which they interview a series of black high school girls about these experiences. They followed up the work by meeting with school superintendents and community groups about their study’s results, and even wrote an editorial for the Indy Star, picked up by USA Today.
This March, in honor of Women’s History Month, they will receive a collective Woman of the Year Award from the City of Bloomington for this work. And hopefully, we will all see as a result a more inclusive scientific and educational community in the not-too-distant future.