It Takes a Village: Bruin Engineer Shares Hopeful Vision for Diversity in STEM
Courtesy of Krystal Cunningham
When Krystal Cunningham Ph.D. ’19 first moved to Los Angeles from Jamaica as a teenager, she found it strange that there were community and scholarship programs specifically geared toward minorities. She didn’t find it odd because they were not helpful, but that they had to exist in order for a Black student like her and others from underrepresented populations to have a chance to thrive.
Thanks to such supportive initiatives, the now senior engineer at Raytheon Technologies was able to forge a career path of her own despite experiencing imposter syndrome earlier in her academic pursuit.
Growing up in the Caribbean country with her mother and extended family, Cunningham said she was always fascinated with planes. But she had never met an engineer or been introduced to science as a girl. So she thought the next best thing for her future would be to become a flight attendant. It wasn’t until a high school teacher took her class on a field trip to Northrop Grumman did Cunningham get a chance to meet real-life engineers. The intriguing experience and her teacher’s encouragement led her to consider the possibility of majoring in engineering. However, the 11th grade is not easy for high school students, and it proved to be especially challenging for the 16-year-old transfer student who wasn’t familiar with SAT and other requirements for college. But she managed to get herself college-ready and was accepted to UC Merced in 2008 as a materials science and engineering student, just three years after the newest UC campus opened.
“My experiences have taught me that spaces are not necessarily created for you, and you have to find your own seat at the table,” Krystal Cunningham said.
The small classes at UC Merced made it easier for Cunningham to meet people and she became an inaugural member of many student clubs. The nurturing environment allowed her to explore her passion for materials science and find a supportive community in the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). She also participated in the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded California Alliance for Minority Participation, or CAMP. The summer research program allowed Cunningham to present her work at various conferences and piqued her initial interest in research beyond undergraduate studies.
Still unsure of whether to pursue an academic career or enter industry after college, Cunningham took advantage of the University of California’s study abroad program and spent one semester of her fourth year studying in Italy. It was through this experience that she became fascinated with ancient materials — how they formed, how they were preserved and how they functioned. She decided to look into materials science and engineering graduate programs.
“My search led me to Prof. Ioanna Kakoulli at UCLA whose lab focuses on the intersectionality between art and science, which was perfect for me,” Cunningham recalled. “My experience in Italy coupled with my love for planes and rockets drove my passion to develop new materials inspired by archaeology.”
As a participant of CAMP, Cunningham was eligible for an NSF doctorate fellowship that provided funding for five years of her graduate study under the tutelage of Kakoulli, a professor of materials science and engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. Cunningham became a member of Kakoulli’s Archaeomaterials Group at UCLA, which focuses on the cross section of archaeology and materials science.
Often the only Black woman in the class at UCLA, Cunningham struggled initially with the impostor syndrome in both academic and professional spaces. She credited her breakthrough to the support of several organizations in which she was a member including NSBE, the Black Graduate Student Association, Women in Engineering at UCLA (WE@UCLA) and the inaugural Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Student Advisory Board.
“My experiences have taught me that spaces are not necessarily created for you, and you have to find your own seat at the table,” Cunningham said. “There are various ways to do that, and most often it requires the help of an individual or an organization and a level of vulnerability of self.”
In 2019, while she was in the home stretch of her doctorate program, she became an Andrew Mellon Fellow with the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) in New York City to further conduct research for her dissertation. As a Met fellow, Cunningham presented her research and helped lead programs for youth to engage with art and science. Her summer in the Big Apple also led her to meet her future husband.
“Conducting my research at the Met enabled me to work with top scientists, conservators and curators at one of the greatest museums in the world,” Cunningham said. “What fascinates me about this discipline is the strong link and juxtaposition of science, engineering and archaeology that utilize fundamentals and applied scientific principles and help build bridges between museums and universities, archaeologists and scientists.”
“To truly level the STEM playing field is to be fully accepted by your peers — not as a woman, not as a Black person, but as an engineer and a scientist,” Cunningham said.
For her dissertation, Cunningham leveraged her time at the museum to explore the properties of a cobalt blue pigment that originated in ancient Egypt. She looked into its potential in applications for nano-materials that could be used in space.
Today, Cunningham is a senior materials and processes engineer at Raytheon, where she works on space and airborne systems for the defense conglomerate. While her day job keeps her busy, Cunningham said she is committed to paying it forward, using her own voice and experiences to mentor students, especially those who come from traditionally underserved communities.
“To truly level the STEM playing field is to be fully accepted by your peers — not as a woman, not as a Black person, but as an engineer and a scientist,” Cunningham said. “I strongly believe that to push the boundaries of STEM requires diversity in persons, diversity in thoughts, understanding our own implicit biases, and in turn creating spaces where everyone is truly treated equal.”
She continues to mentor students through WE@UCLA and other similar initiatives. In doing so, Cunningham said she hopes to provide tomorrow’s engineers with the same measure of support she had received from her own communities. For her efforts, she has received, among other recognitions, the Science Spectrum Trailblazer Award, which is a part of the Black Engineer of the Year Awards’ STEM outstanding achievement award category.
“It takes a village and mine has been there for me in more ways than I can count,” Cunningham said. “None of this would have been possible without the support of my community.”
Dannela Lagrimas contributed to this story.