These Romance Novels Represent Black Women In Science
The fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (also known as STEM) are not particularly diverse. And despite a gradual uptick in diversity over the last decade, a 2023 report from the National Science Foundation showed that only 24% of people in these industries are Hispanic, Black, or Native American.
Dr. Carlotta Berry is working to change that, taking an untraditional approach to encourage people from marginalized backgrounds to enter the sciences. She is, as she puts it, an engineering professor by day and romance novelist by night. Working under the pen name Carlotta Ardell, she writes youth-friendly romance novels featuring Black protagonists who work in STEM fields.
SciFri producer and host of the Universe Of Art podcast D. Peterschmidt sat down with Dr. Berry, who is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Rose Hulman Institute of Technology, to talk about how she got started on this journey and why she wants to make STEM a little steamier.
Dr. Carlotta Berry is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Rose Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana.
IRA FLATOW: We have seen a lot of different approaches to increasing diversity in science, technology, engineering, and math, also known as STEM. And although there’s been gradual progress here in these fields over the last decade, white men still hold a majority of these positions, about 2/3 according to a 2023 report from the National Science Foundation. Our next guest is taking a slightly different approach to encourage people from marginalized backgrounds to enter the sciences.
Dr. Carlotta Berry is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana. And she’s also the author of several science-based romance novels that feature Black characters who work in STEM. Sci-Fi producer and Universe of Art host, D. Peterschmidt sat down with Dr. Berry to talk about how she got started on this journey and why she wants to make STEM a little steamier. Here’s D.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Dr. Carlotta Berry, welcome to Science Friday.
CARLOTTA BERRY: Thank you for having me.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: So you’re a robotics professor by day. Can you tell me how you got into writing romance?
CARLOTTA BERRY: Yes, absolutely. During the pandemic I was working with three other Black women engineering professors. And we were brainstorming ways to market science, technology, engineering, math to make it more interesting to diversify the profession by drawing in more Black and brown kids, as well as female students. And we thought about movies and web series. And then eventually we converged on fictional novels, just something so that when people imagine an engineer, they imagine more than just Dilbert and MacGyver and Sheldon. But they also think about romance novels or even just fictional books.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Right. And what is your own history with romance novels?
CARLOTTA BERRY: I have loved romance novels since I was in high school. I did not know, but at the time I did not see a lot of characters that looked like me. I wasn’t really into STEM yet. But even just little nerdy girls who liked math and science, but also wanted to have her happily ever after with her male interest, or with their spouse, or whatever their partner. And so I then said, I want to write books where I see myself experiencing the joys and the difficulties and tribulations of my personal and professional life.
You know, I could find an African-American romance novel or I could find a sci-fi novel every now and then may have a professor in it, may have somebody in STEM in it. But it’s just not prevalent. They are few and far between. And I think that is part of that marketing problem. I think it’s very important for all people to see themselves in their literature, in their media. And you know, I want it to be a part of being able to do that.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Right. What was it going from writing dissertations and scientific papers to writing fiction?
CARLOTTA BERRY: It was more than a notion, and it was way harder than I thought it would be. So right, we were naive. It was the pandemic. Everybody’s at home. And we’re like, oh, we’ll just knock out a couple of fictional books really quick. The romance came later. But we’ll just knock out a couple of fictional books, easy peasy, lemon squeezy kind of thing. It was not. It was not at all.
And one of the main things was as technical writers, we honestly did not know anything about the mechanics of fictional writing. Some of us read fictional books, like myself. Some of us read romance novels. But there are things we just did not know, like about point of view, perspective, visual writing– like taste, touch, smell. So once after that year passed and we still didn’t have the books published, and we started meeting indie publishers and indie authors. And got a writing mentor. They’re saying things to me like you’re not telling us what the room looks like.
You’re not telling us what their hair looks like. What were they wearing? How did it smell? How did it taste. As an engineer, I’m kind of like, I don’t care about all that stuff, all that cloud mumbo jumbo. But that’s important, right? That’s a part of fictional writing that I just did not know to do. And so I was phoning it in. And I now know it’s completely different.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: You’re listening to Science Friday from WNYC Studios. So your first book is called Elevated Inferno. Can you tell me about the plot of that, and the main character, Monet?
CARLOTTA BERRY: Absolutely. So Elevated Inferno is about a young lady. She has a computer science degree and she’s getting her master’s in computer science with a focus on robotics. She wants her work to be in human robot interaction where she designs robots to be able to work with children who may have autism or other types of situations like that. So in the plot of the book, she has an opportunity to get a wonderful internship. And she’s running late. And she really wants this job. And then she gets there and she’s on the elevator finally on her way. And the elevator breaks down.
And so she’s in the elevator and she’s stressing. This actually happened to me. That’s where I got this from. But anyway, so she’s now stressing. So she calls her sister. And her sister is like, oh, this is so delicious. We have to go on social media and live stream this. And so they live stream her rescue. And the handsome firefighter who rescues her, his name is Rhys and he becomes her love interest.
So the plot of the book is about her trying to balance pursuing her master’s degree, dealing with parents who believe you go to college to get your MRS, and so they don’t understand why she needs to get all this education. It’s not really the way they visualize the world, why are you being so STEM-y and technical when you need to just get married and have babies kind of thing. And also having a younger sister who looks up to her as a STEM rock star, as well as having to balance that with an academic advisor or professor who just wants their lab work to get done, as a lot of professors do. I need you in there doing research, cranking out papers. And it sounds like that this new man in your life is starting to take your attentions away from where they need to be.
So all of my books inject a little bit of either my experience or what other Black women in STEM experience, along with some fiction. So there’s many parts of it that are Easter eggs from relationships from my friends and myself.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah, I mean it’s a very personal book in a lot of ways. Do you wish you had something like this when you were getting into engineering?
CARLOTTA BERRY: Absolutely. I tell people all the time, if there had been no Spelman College, I probably would not have graduated from Georgia Tech. Because I didn’t know a lot about the challenges that Black women in STEM experienced. And maybe if I had, I would have left, or maybe if I would have been equipped with more resources from the very beginning, it would have gone better and not been quite as difficult. So I spent a lot of my time not just writing these books but also giving engineering professor advice series and STEM lessons on social media. Because I don’t want people to start out where I started out.
Because I like to say, you can be what you cannot see, but it does make it difficult. So I’m trying to make it easier for the people that come behind me by showing them some of the tools and resources they can use to be successful.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah speaking of that, speaking of the audience, what has the response been like to both your books?
CARLOTTA BERRY: It’s been wonderful. And I think the most exciting parts for me are when people who are not STEM people can recognize it, and relate to it, and it be OK. I say that my genre is Black STEM romance which I kind of made up, even though it’s really contemporary fiction, African-American romance, women’s literature. So because of that I think some people just are immediately like, oh no, this book has STEM in the title. I’m not reading that. I’m not a STEM person.
But what I’m finding is that people who do read it, they can resonate with it. And I try not to over STEM the book. I won’t STEM to be a focus because I want to normalize seeing Black women in STEM. But I don’t want it to be so STEM that it slides into science fiction or that the normal everyday reader cannot relate to it. So I like that because it’s really just a simple little romance story, and it’s interjected with a little bit of what people in these fields go through. And so it’s been really exciting. I think the main thing is trying to get more people more hands on and eyes on the work, and educating people about what this genre means.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Sure. And I understand your students have also read it too, and they find it like enlightening too?
CARLOTTA BERRY: They have. They have some of my colleagues and some of my students I did not specifically tell them about it, but they found me on social media. And after a little bit of ribbing of oh, Dr. Berry writes romance novels, I think they got in and realized it’s just a sweet little old romance. It’s not erotica. It is romance. OK? These are about happily ever after. It’s not going to be Fifty Shades of Gray or whatever you think it is. It’s just telling a good sweet story with STEM as an underbelly to that.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah they’re absolutely high school appropriate books I feel like.
CARLOTTA BERRY: Absolutely.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Well Carlotta, this is great. I had a great time reading the book too, and I’m looking forward to future installments in the series.
CARLOTTA BERRY: Thank you so much for having me. It’s quite an honor.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Dr. Carlotta Berry, author and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. And you can read an excerpt from Elevated Inferno on our website sciencefriday.com/romance. For Science Friday I’m D. Peterschmidt.
IRA FLATOW: Thanks, D. And one last thing before we go, are you looking for some last minute gifts for the bookworms in your life? We’ve featured over 35 different books on our programs this year. And if you’re like me and you need another reminder of some of those great titles, go to sciencefriday.com/booksof2023 for a full list of this year’s best science books. That’s sciencefriday.com/booksof2023.