Researcher, advocate: Sossena Wood promotes diversity in engineering


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Sossena Wood’s academic career was impacted by diversity programs in the Swanson School of Engineering such as Pitt Excel, where she served as a mentor, and the National Society of Black Engineers, where she served as the National Chairperson for Pitt’s chapter.

By Maggie Young, Staff Writer

Sossena Wood entered the Swanson School of Engineering in 2007 as an electrical engineering major, a major where only 0.9 percent of degree-earners nationwide are black women. But after losing her partial academic scholarship — and because she felt isolated in her white- and male-dominated major — she seriously considered going home.

She graduated in 2011 and went on to be the first in her family to get a graduate degree, earning a doctorate in bioengineering from Pitt in November 2018. Now, she’s working on her postdoctoral research at Carnegie Mellon.

Wood says her success derives heavily from her involvement in diversity programs in the Swanson School of Engineering. She joined Pitt EXCEL, a program intended to help those less represented in the field, and was also involved with the National Society of Black Engineers, in which she served as the national chairperson for Pitt’s chapter from 2013 to 2015 as a graduate student.

“It was really the supportive programs in the School of Engineering that made it possible for me to continue to push myself and not be fearful of if I was capable or not, and continue to give good feedback based on various milestones that I was going through at the time of my undergraduate years,” Wood said.

The percentage of African American students throughout engineering programs at universities is extremely low. According to Yvette Moore, the director of Pitt EXCEL, African American students experience the implications of these statistics every day.

“A lot of times, when you go into Benedum, as a student of color, it’s not always a home,” Moore said. “The majority of students, it’s their home because they see thousands of students that look just like them. When you go to class and there’s 200 students in class that look just like you, that makes you feel comfortable. No one ever wants to be the only one of anything.”

Moore said programs like Pitt EXCEL and the National Society of Black Engineers are important because they give minority students a place to connect with others going through a similar experience and help them navigate spaces predominantly occupied by white men.

It’s easy for the majority white environment to discourage minority students like Wood, Moore said. In addition to this, Wood was juggling engineering coursework and the demands of college athletics. Consequently, Wood lost her partial academic scholarship during sophomore year — which covered about half of her tuition — because she didn’t meet the GPA requirement.

According to Moore, Wood was at one point the only woman of color among her electrical engineering class. This and her declining grades led Wood to doubt herself and her academic ability. But by connecting with Pitt EXCEL and its students, as well as connecting with Moore as her mentor, Moore said Wood became more confident of herself in her academics and was able to continue school.

“She finally found her niche toward the end of first semester sophomore year, and from then on, when she connected, she was in there,” Moore said. “She was one of the prime leaders of Pitt EXCEL.”

Moore helped Wood find an electrical engineering co-op, or long-term internship, but after getting the hands-on experience in industry, Wood was more inclined to start doing research. Wood was accepted to Swanson’s Pre-PhD Program, which was created by Dr. Sylvanus Wosu, the associate dean for Diversity Affairs in the engineering school. The program works with minority students over a summer program to prepare them for graduate school.

While Wood was unsure in her potential to go to graduate school, she had support from both Wosu and Moore to continue her research career.

“I’m the first one in my direct family to go to graduate school, so that experience in itself was a lot. I was the first one to go to engineering school period,” Wood said. “Navigating this by yourself, having someone give you the ‘yes you’re doing OK’ when you think you’re not because of your classes, it goes a long way.”

Wood studied neurodegenerative brain diseases using MRI technology during this program and continued to work on the project during her graduate degree. While she said she enjoyed having the ability to lengthen lives with advanced technology, she worked in a lab where at one point she was the only female researcher.

“It took quite a while for me to gain my independence in the sense of vocalizing how I felt,” Wood said. “Articulating yourself as a female among men who just kind of blurt things out was not so much of a challenge, but something for me to adapt my personality to in order that I could be heard and respected.”

According to Wosu, Wood shined during this program. Wood’s specific journey differed from the typical track because she did electrical engineering during her undergraduate career, but became interested in studying bioengineering before applying to graduate school.

“I watched this young lady develop into just a level of excellence, a level of critical thinking that she developed within nine weeks of this program,” Wosu said. “Sossena was able to articulate bioengineering.”

Wood graduated from the graduate program in bioengineering in 2018 and has now been doing postdoctoral research for three months. Her next goal is to become a professor.

“I think it’s important for someone like me to be seen,” Wood said. “So I hope to become a faculty member. I hope to be one that’s reachable to do research that gives a lot of students opportunities to make a difference in the world.”