We’re back with another Brainy Brown Beauty feature – a HUGE hair, academic, and life inspiration of mine who I’m sure needs no introduction!
Hi there! My name is Maeling (many call me Mae for short) and I was born in NY, raised in many places (Jamaica, Florida, Maryland, Alabama) and now happily residing in the ATL with my husband and baby boy! I am an engineer, and recently completed my Ph.D. in Materials Science & Engineering at Georgia Tech. I’m also the creator of NaturalChica.com, a natural hair and lifestyle site that was launched in 2009.
How did you get so interested in science?
As a young girl, I was always interested in how things worked around me. When I got to high school, my mother introduced me to one of her friends who worked at NASA. She would take me to different engineering-related events which really fueled my interest in learning more. It was when I was a junior that I decided to participate in a week-long engineering program at the University of Maryland that I was exposed to the different fields of engineering. That’s when I learned about the exciting world of materials science, where I could start to understand on an atomic level why different materials behaved the way they did. What particularly piqued my interest, was a demo on shape memory alloys – which is basically a material that if deformed, can return to its original shape with the application of heat. I knew then, I had to learn more and decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in materials science & engineering.
Why did you decide to pursue scientific research?
When I completed my undergraduate degree, I was faced with the choice of accepting a job offer or pursuing a graduate education. I ultimately decided to pursue my Ph.D. because I knew there was so much more I wanted to learn and it was so fascinating to me that I could also become a creator of knowledge through my scientific research. I decided to focus on the area of biomaterials research because I was particularly interested in how various materials interacted with the body and how they could be tailored to provide innovative biomedical solutions.
What’s your hair story?
When I moved to Atlanta for grad school, I quickly discovered that keeping up with my regular salon relaxer appointments was going to be a problem with my grad school budget. Around that same time, I started to notice that the health and appearance of my two younger sisters’ hair had dramatically improved after they stopped relaxing their hair. I loved their natural texture and decided that I would also stop relaxing my hair so I could rediscover my natural texture.
During my first transition period, I had NO idea what I was doing! I stopped relaxing my hair, but I was still flat-ironing my hair all the time and even tried to blend in my new curls with a straight weave. Needless to say, I became frustrated after several months and went back to a relaxer. The day following my relaxer, I regretted my decision and decided to go for the transition again! This time, I had a few friends in the area who were also going on the same transition to natural hair journey so we formed our own little support group and went for it! This is also when I discovered the few natural hair sites that were out at the time and decided to start my own website and YouTube channel to document my journey. After a few months of transitioning, I couldn’t wait any longer to embrace my natural texture and went for the big chop (video of my BC)!
That was back in 2009 and since then, I’ve really enjoyed learning how to care for and style my natural hair over the years and also encourage other women to go on their own journeys! For me, embracing my natural hair ended up being more than about hair. It took me on a journey of increasing my self-confidence, introduced me to a community of inspiring women, raised my awareness of living an overall healthy lifestyle and also led down the path of entrepreneurship! It’s amazing how making one change in your life where you feel you are being more true to yourself can open the door to so many beautiful and life-changing experiences.
Is natural hair ever a concern in your field?
For the past 6 years, I’ve worked in research lab settings and there was never cause for concern with my natural hair styles. As long as my styles didn’t pose any safety risks during experiments in the lab, there really wasn’t anything to worry about. Thankfully, no one ever said anything about my hair unless it was a compliment. I know this isn’t the case for all women wearing natural hair in the workplace, so it is my hope that the way our hair naturally grows out of our head becomes more and more accepted.
What is the representation of black women in your field, both in school and in the profession?
I’m not sure of the exact numbers but from the time I started undergrad to when I completed my Ph.D., I have noticed an overall increase in women enrolled in engineering programs and also women of color. Sadly, where I haven’t seen much of an improvement is black women in engineering faculty. I believe improvements in this area would be incredibly empowering to black women matriculating through these programs.
How has diversity, or lack thereof, either affected your learning or motivated you?
In my undergraduate engineering program, I was very aware of the fact that in most scenarios I was always one of a few females in my classes and many times, the only person of color. In the beginning, it made me a little self-conscious but having groups on campus like the National Society of Black Engineers helped my confidence to grow and encouraged me to stand out and be a leader. My educational environment also pushed me to be a hard worker and to get involved with programs and also create opportunities that introduced children to science and engineering at an early age that normally weren’t provided this kind of exposure.
Why should other naturally smart girls do what you do?
I’m a believer in letting your passions and dreams lead you and pursuing them to the fullest, in spite of the naysayers or challenges you may face. Don’t ever believe that you can’t achieve “x, y & z” because someone says you’re not equipped or they’ve never seen anyone do that before. There are so many opportunities within science & engineering to explore and create, so if you have an interest in it, go for it!
What other hobbies and passions do you have?
I’m a DIY girl at heart and I love to make just about anything, from handmade cards and notebooks to tufted ottomans lol. I also enjoy all things videography, photography and front-end web development. I love to go salsa dancing and enjoy singing as well.