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Oral history interview with Margaret E.M. Tolbert

  • 2009-Aug-13

Margaret E. M. Tolbert was born in Suffolk, Virginia at a time when rural Virginia was still very segregated. She and her siblings were raised by their grandmother within a large extended family. Growing up, Tolbert took cleaning jobs in her community to make money. In this way, she met Mr. and Mrs. Cook, who, as educated and relatively well-off African Americans, encouraged her to get a good education. Her high school had limited resources, but she found excellent mentors and graduated class valedictorian. She decided to attend Tuskegee University for her undergraduate degree, with the intention of entering medicine. At Tuskegee, she was drawn to chemistry and research, a career path she had not been exposed to before. Though she was the only female student in her class, Tolbert found a community of supportive professors and students with an interest in her well-being. She went on to complete her master's degree in chemistry at Wayne State University, but immediately returned to Tuskegee as a technician to be with her husband. She was interested in becoming a chemistry professor, so at the Cooks' urging she applied to a PhD program at Brown University, which was recruiting minority students. By this time, Tolbert's first marriage had ended, and the Cooks cared for Tolbert's son while she earned her degree. At Brown, she met her second husband, Henry Hudson Tolbert. After completing her doctorate, Tolbert returned to Tuskegee as a faculty member, but soon took guest research and management positions at the University of Texas, Florida A&M University, and Brown University. She also completed a postdoctorate in Brussels, Belgium, where her Congolese colleagues were fascinated by her African-American heritage. While Tolbert had intended to stay in research, she found herself drawn to management positions. In 1979, she took the opportunity to become the first woman director of the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee University. In this position, she oversaw institutional development in the university's research programs, but she also traveled to affiliated institutions as far away as Liberia and Libya. After almost a decade at the Carver Research Foundation, she went to Standard Oil of Ohio on sabbatical. From that point onward, she transitioned permanently to science management positions, working for BP America, the National Science Foundation, Argonne National Laboratory, and the New Brunswick Laboratory. In these positions, her responsibilities included overseeing development, funding, and diversity-based initiatives. Tolbert is currently at the National Science Foundation, funding programs and developing policy focused on increasing diversity in science and technology. During the interview she spoke repeatedly about the importance of mentoring, and the opportunities networking provides to develop mentors, colleagues, and future opportunities. She concludes the interview by giving young women the advice to get a strong math/science background, and to make informed decisions. She also speaks to the unique ability of minority-serving institutions to provide an education while still cultivating the whole student.

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