UT alum talks career, importance of diversity in STEM

Laura Zhang

Shameika Wilmington’s scientific curiosity was sparked in the 1990s when she first looked through a telescope she received as a Christmas gift. Over 20 years later, she continues to explore her passion as a regulatory affairs scientist at Procter & Gamble and an advocate for women and minorities in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. 

Wilmington, who graduated from UT in 2016 with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, uses her degree to make sure household and personal care products comply with government regulations around the world. 

While Wilmington does not directly work in a lab, her knowledge of biochemistry helps her communicate and collaborate with scientists who do. She said she must understand the science behind the products in order to help them meet federal regulations.

“Science has its own language, and you realize this if you sit in the lab and talk to grad students,” Wilmington said. “They have their own language, and the same thing applies in industry. We have a language we are speaking, and the basis of it is science.”

As a graduate student at UT, Wilmington worked in the biochemistry lab of molecular biosciences professor Andreas Matouschek. His lab studies and regulates the biological cellular processes of proteins by understanding the complement of protein synthesis which is protein degradation.

Wilmington took a new angle and targeted the proteins that already existed by molding her project around the mechanism of protein degradation. According to Matouschek, this project made the lab much more collaborative, bringing in researchers from other fields, such as chemistry. 

“She really had to do a lot of creative and original things,” Matouschek said. “It took a lot of initiative and independence and courage [to do things the lab doesn’t normally do].”

At UT, Wilmington also served as a science and research mentor for high school students through an outreach program with Austin Regional Science Festival. One of her mentees, Shazma Khan, is now a biology and public health junior at UT. 

Khan said working with Wilmington, a minority woman in STEM, changed her preconceived archetype of who scientists are. According to Khan, Wilmington’s ability to explain technical jargon and relate to Khan convinced her to pursue research.

“For me, I had that stereotype with scientists and lab work, where I just thought of a guy who was socially awkward and very preoccupied with what was in his petri dish,” Khan said. “So the fact that I had Shameika, who’s a minority woman and really fun to talk to and the opposite of what I was expecting, was a breath of fresh air.”

Khan said it is crucial to shatter prejudices in STEM fields where the lack of diversity is apparent, especially in tenure faculty and science leadership. According to Khan, although the number of women and minorities in STEM is increasing, unconscious bias still remains.

“I’m in this group project in lab and there’s this one guy who doesn’t let anyone else do anything, so everyone’s like ‘OK, whatever,’” Khan said. “But if I were that person who started doing everything, everyone would label me as annoying and a control freak, whereas for him he’s ‘confident’ and ‘taking initiative.’”

Wilmington said she continues outreach efforts, hoping to inspire other young scientists. One time, she was judging a poster competition when a young girl around nine years old came up to her. 

“[This girl came up to me and said], ‘Are you one of the scientists?’ and I said yes, so she grabs her mom and says, ‘Mom, she’s a scientist!’” Wilmington said. “That moment, I will never forget, because I got used to myself as a scientist. But for this young girl, me coming up to her … was something different. It was something she needed to question, and it got her really excited.”

According to Wilmington, mentoring women and minority scientists in STEM is crucial to advancing the field as a whole.

“Yes, I know I’m underrepresented,” Wilmington said. “But at the same time, that’s why my representation is so important.”