HOTY2017

Former Advisor in Obama White House is on a Mission to Build a Brighter Future for STEM

Dr. Knatokie Ford is working with storytellers to bring diversity and authenticity to portrayals of people in science and tech.

Samantha Cole

Rei Watanabe

It’s a little mind-blowing that someone like Dr. Knatokie Ford, who spent nearly four years working in the White House as part of President Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, would ever struggle with feeling like a fraud.

But Ford, who now owns the consulting company Fly Sci Enterprisewhich is dedicated to using storytelling to promote social change and bringing authenticity to portrayals of women and people of color—told me that at 36, she still periodically copes with feeling like she’s an imposter.

“I like to call the imposter syndrome my inner hater,” she told me in a phone conversation. That self doubt threatens to hold people back, and can be especially damaging to women and people of color.

For Ford, that sense of determination to persist despite the odds goes back to her childhood. When she was three years old, an accident left her partially blind in one eye. Rather than cutting her off from part of the world, it opened her mind to science.

“Because of that, I always had a curiosity about vision and how eyes work,” she said. “That grew into an overall curiosity about the world that surrounded me.”

Ford is now working to inspire that curiosity in others as an independent consultant. For instance, among Fly Sci Enterprise’s clients is the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), the advertising trade association of brands around the country. Ford advises organizations like this on the best ways to appeal to communities interested in STEM fields, and to engage women and people of color.

“It’s really exciting because advertisers they’re real influencers in the media ecosystem,” she said. “[The ANA’s #SeeHer coalition] represents about 40 billion dollars a year on television ad spend. So excited to be working with this group, as a way of continuing this project that started out as an idea.”

Ford grew up in Akron, Ohio, and attended Clark Atlanta University, a historically black university in Atlanta, to pursue a career as a medical doctor. But ironically, her vision—the catalyst for her passion for medicine and ophthalmology—kept her from becoming a surgeon. Instead of becoming a doctor, she decided to pursue her PhD, at Harvard.

“I don’t know if anybody expects to get into Harvard,” she told me. But the pleasant surprise of entering Harvard life soon turned to culture shock, and then disillusionment. “I started to question whether I was even meant to be at Harvard. I thought, maybe they made a mistake letting me in.” This, combined with feelings of stereotype threat on the predominately-white New England ivy league campus, pushed then-23-year-old Ford to take a leave of absence in 2004, after only one semester.

During that time away, she moved to Los Angeles, to pursue an acting career. “I always kind of laugh when I say that, because I don’t think that’s what people expect a person does when they leave a PhD program.”

A year and a half later, she returned to finish her degree. “[I realized] being a black female that had an opportunity at Harvard, and what that meant, not just for me but for the people who look like me who might come behind me.”

She graduated with her PhD in Experimental Pathology in 2011, which helped her land an AAAS S & T Policy Fellowship with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), the White House’s scientific braintrust.

Her stint in the White House produced the work she’s most proud of: the Image of STEM program, with the mission of getting more women and people of color represented in stories about science. The program challenged Hollywood and advertisers to think about diversity in their storytelling, debunk stereotypes and misconceptions about STEM, and help underrepresented groups find role models in science and technology fields.

After working for Obama, who is considered one of the most science-savvy presidents since Jefferson, our current state of politics and science is terrifying, Ford said.

She is trying to remain optimistic despite the fact that 2017 was a bleak year for science—from the research-restricting travel ban to Trump’s choice to leave the Paris Agreement, and especially the recent news about the CDC’s banned words list that includes “diversity,” the core of her work. Because of this low point, she believes, scientists are more empowered to engage politically and raise their voices.

“Having these mentalities come from the shadows to remind us that they’re still there is the only way to truly eradicate them,” she said. “Expose that it truly exists, and let love blot it out.”

Humans of the Year is a series about the people building a better future for everyone. Follow along here .

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