Nialah Wilson-Small, a Botetourt native, became the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from Cornell University after successfully defending her dissertation last year.
“It was a wild, tiring ride, but I’m so incredibly grateful. You may now call me Dr. Nialah Wilson-Small,” she shared on Facebook.
Wilson-Small, a Lord Botetourt High School alumna, participated in robotics and STEM programs at school and in her community, according to WDBJ7 last August. According to the platform, she was also a track and field champion. Wilson-Small held the Lord Botetourt High School record for the 100-meter hurdles as well as the Cosmopolitan Invitational Track Meet record for the 100-meter hurdles.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at Howard University before attending Cornell to make history. She mentioned how historical figures such as American engineer Mae Jemison inspired her to pursue a career in STEM.
“In high school, my biggest inspirations were Madame Marie Curie, a physicist in the 20th century, I took a chemistry class in high school, we learned about her and I was just super inspired by her story. And more recently, Dr. Mae Jemison, who’s the first Black woman to go into space. So they were definitely pillars in inspiring me to want to be in STEM,” Wilson-Small said.
Her advice to students is that they should push hard to make it despite the difficulties. Wilson-Small is now at NYU as an industry assistant professor in its school of engineering. NYU writes that she “researches coordination algorithms for large collectives of simple robots, and human-drone interactions. Specifically, she is interested in how drones can use physical feedback to influence human motion, enhancing communication for novel applications. Her research is at the cross-section of design, human-robot interaction, and autonomy.”
According to the school, she worked in the Aerospace and Defense industries prior to joining NYU. Black people have made an impact on the world with their technical skills over the years. From Wendy Okolo, the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, to Osatohanmwen Osemwengie, who builds drones for the US Army, to the 26-year-old Nigerian who became the highest-paid robotics engineer in the world, Blacks have made everyone proud.