As a youth growing up in southern Maryland, Oliver Myers would lose himself in science fiction and wonder if he could build an X-wing fighter or create a force field like the one that protected the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Wysheka Austin was a student at Easley High School when a career center principal saw her math and science test scores and suggested she take a set of pre-engineering courses.
For Myers and Austin, those seeds sprouted into successful engineering careers that have deep roots at Clemson University and have positioned them to help others follow in their footsteps. Both will be recognized in February at the BEYA STEM Global Competitiveness Conference, where Black leaders are recognized with awards.
Myers is winning the Dr. Eugene Deloatch Legacy Award, and Austin is receiving the Science Spectrum Trailblazer Award.
The honors bring one of engineering’s toughest challenges sharply into focus: How can more individuals from underrepresented groups be brought into STEM fields that often come with comfortable salaries, job security and opportunities to improve people’s lives?
Both Myers and Austin have decided to make the challenge a priority in their careers. It’s the central focus for Myers, who serves as associate dean for inclusive excellence and undergraduate studies in Clemson’s College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences.
“We have to lift as we climb,” he said. “We have to support each other. There’s an African proverb: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.’ It’s really about making sure everybody has every available opportunity to be successful.”
Austin is pursuing her Ph.D. in engineering and science education under Clemson’s Eliza Gallagher while working full-time as a senior operations manager for GE Power, where she oversees more than five salaried employees and 65 hourly employees.
Austin visits colleges to recruit underrepresented students for GE. And almost each semester, she visits Engineering 1000, a freshman engineering course at Clemson, to help students understand what it’s like to be an engineer at GE and how she made the transition from engineer to leader.
“What I love most about my role at GE is the interaction with the people,” she said. “It’s like a family– that’s how I like to describe my team. We’re really close knit. Whether it’s laughing or tough times, we all hold each other close and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to make it through it.’”
Myers joined Clemson in 2014 and has since secured more than $3 million in grant and research funding, most notably for a project aimed at creating “smart material” that can sense damage similar to how nerves tell the body it has been injured. He has authored or co-authored more than 70 publications.
Since becoming associate dean in February 2020, Myers has worked with a team to forge stronger relationships with programs that support underrepresented students, including PEER & WISE, Grad 360 and STEM ALL-IN.
The team has initiated an Uncomfortable Conversations Series to address the racial and gender divide in the academy. Myers himself set the tone by candidly sharing his experiences as a Black undergraduate, graduate student, corporate professional and faculty member, which stimulated discussions among faculty, staff and students.
Myers and the team are also working to replicate the best practices from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program. Among the more than 1,200 alumni of that program are Myers and Jerome Adams, the 20th surgeon general of the United States.
Myers continues to teach, and students across all demographics give him high ratings, saying they appreciate the academic and industrial relevance of his courses.
Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said Myers has shown an unwavering sense of self, character and discipline and that his award is richly deserved.
“His efforts have played a crucial role in helping make the college a leader in diversity, equity and inclusion at Clemson University,” Gramopadhye said. “His leadership is helping us ensure equal opportunities in the classroom, research lab, department, college, University and across the field of engineering.”
Austin, who holds a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering from Clemson, decided to pursue her Ph.D. after seeing the impact she was having on her niece, who is now 13 years old, and two cousins, ages 16 and 9. She wants to position herself even more strongly as a mentor for young Black engineers, especially middle school girls.
As part of her Ph.D. program, Austin is focusing on weak points in the educational system and on how small interventions might produce large positive effects. She plans to study ways of increasing interest in engineering among Black girls from low socioeconomic backgrounds as they make the transition from middle school to high school.
Gallagher said that Austin is highly deserving of her award.
“In our current national climate, voices like Wysheka’s are critical,” Gallagher said. “She is unafraid to challenge inequitable structures and systems. I have no doubt that she will use her research and increasing authority to take on additional leadership roles in community engagement. Her passion for supporting others on the academic journey is unwavering, and she will continue to take every opportunity she finds for helping others.”