Nialah Wilson-Small is first Black woman to earn Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from U.S. university

Mildred Europa Taylor January 23, 2023
Nialah Wilson-Small made history last year. Photo: Nialah Wilson-Small/Facebook

Botetourt native Nialah Wilson-Small became the first Black woman to earn 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.

A Lord Botetourt High School alumna, Wilson-Small took part in robotics and STEM programs in school and in her community, WDBJ7 reported last August. The platform said that she was also a track and field champion. Wilson-Small was the record holder for the 100-meter hurdles at Lord Botetourt High School and the Cosmopolitan Invitational Track Meet record holder for the 100-meter hurdles.

Before attending Cornell to make history, she earned her bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at Howard University. She noted how history-makers like American engineer Mae Jemison motivated her to be 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.”

Before joining NYU, the school said she received work experience in the Aerospace and Defense industries. Over the years, Black people have been impacting the world with their technical skills. From the likes of Wendy Okolo, who became one of the first Black women to earn a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering; Osatohanmwen Osemwengie, who builds drones for the U.S. Army; to the 26-year-old Nigerian who became the highest-paid robotics engineer in the world, Blacks have made everyone proud with these wonderful undertakings.

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