Nearly 50 years ago, when Shirley Malcom first stepped onto Penn State’s campus, she acknowledged she didn’t think much about names on the buildings. She just wanted to avoid getting lost.
But, standing on campus again Friday, the 75-year-old Black woman — a pioneer who helped create a more inclusive environment for women of color in STEM — couldn’t help but reflect on those names. After all, hers became one of those names Friday.
Penn State officially renamed the 329 Building at Innovation Park the Shirley M. Malcom Building during a standing-room-only ceremony Friday, one that featured two standing ovations and a few more tears. She earned her doctorate in ecology from Penn State in 1974.
“I want everyone to realize that I do not consider this to be about me,” she said. “I believe it represents something that is much bigger.”
Malcom — who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, before the Civil Rights Act — refused to listen to voices that insisted she was incapable of the maths and sciences because of her gender and/or skin color. She graduated high school at the age of 16, earned a bachelor’s degree at Washington, a master’s at UCLA and then a doctorate at Penn State.
She went on to co-author a landmark 1976 report titled, “The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science,” which identified problems — and solutions — for increasing representation in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. She continues to work at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and she previously served on a science/technology advisory council to former President Bill Clinton.
“She inspires tens of thousands of women and girls across the country,” said Tracy Langkilde, dean of the Eberly College of Science. “And she’s inspired thousands of us right here during her visits to Penn State.”
Malcom rose slowly when it was her turn to speak Friday, wiping a tear away from her right eye and steadying herself as her lower lip trembled. “I’m overwhelmed,” she managed, before a brief pause.
She felt honored, she said. But she didn’t want the silver letters on the side of a nearby building to only reflect her accomplishments. She hoped they would also reinforce “resilience, perseverance, humanity.” She wanted them to inspire future generations. She wished they would remind faculty and institutions to continue providing supportive and inclusive environments.
She hoped for a future of STEM students “who truly look like America and who, together, bring better ideas on how to discover, invent, explore and sustain and to make broader impacts on their fields, their communities and the world.”
When Malcom taught briefly at North Carolina, she became an “existence proof.” As the university’s only Black female faculty member, her office quickly became a campus destination. Students of color wanted to see her for themselves.
Even today, decades after she first started encouraging others, she’s still inspiring students.
Destiny Wright, a current PSU biology student who grew up on Chicago’s South Side, said she’d often look at photos on lab walls without seeing people that looked like her. But, eventually, she found Malcom, whom she called a “beacon of hope on an unfamiliar path.”
“Dr. Malcom refused to allow society to define her, to fall victim to the stereotypical idea that minorities were incapable of succeeding,” Wright said. “Dr. Malcom took that step — and then some.”
The renaming of the building at Innovation Park is part of an initiative under university President Eric Barron. Since 2019, Penn State has tried to rename buildings on the campus to honor pioneers and innovators that helped break down barriers. Warren Washington, the nation’s second African American to earn a doctoral degree in meteorology, was honored in 2019 with the “Warren M. Washington Building” at 328 Innovation Boulevard. Col. Guion “Guy” Bluford Jr., the first African American in space, earned a similar honor last year at 320 Innovation Boulevard.
Malcom is the latest to earn the distinction. She boasts a Public Welfare Medal, one of the highest honors given by the National Academy of Sciences, in addition to Penn State’s Distinguished Alumni Award.
She also serves as co-chair of the Gender Advisory Board of the U.N. Commission on Science & Technology for Development. She has received more than a dozen honorary degrees. She’s given a TEDx Talk. And she’s been repeatedly lauded for being a trailblazer in the scientific community.
“For more than four decades, she’s been a tremendous leader, a visionary scientist, an advocate for inclusion and an inspiration for women and women of color,” Barron said. “Surely, Penn State is very fortunate to count you as one of our own and someone who found the education that you were seeking in the classroom of this fine institution.
“You remain a tremendous source of pride for Penn State.”
This story was originally published April 9, 2022 6:00 AM.