The scientist/engineer

Mantitia Moultrie Scientist, featured
Manitia Moultrie

 

BY INDHIRA SUERO ACOSTA, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Manitia Moultrie was three years old when her father took her hand and told her that she would go to college and do great things. In her perfectly pressed pink dress, that morning —the usual walk to kindergarten— was a premonition of her future.

Little did her father know that his daughter would turn out to be the first African-American female environmental scientist/engineer in Florida. However, he did know how to motivate her.

“He said, “If you want to be a doctor you can. If you want to go and be a lawyer you can. You can go and do whatever you want, but you’ll need to make good grades.’ Of course, at the time engineering was not part of the things you thought about doing,” recalled Moultrie.

Her father painted a bright future in his young girl’s mind. Her mother showed her the importance of remaining strong and focused. Whining or fretting was out of the picture. It was all about finding a solution and getting it done.

Education

The road to being appointed the United States Power Sector Leader for Golder Associates, Inc. would be a long one. It started when she entered first grade at the beginning of school integration. Her parents explained to her that she would be one of the first blacks to attend P. K. Yonge Elementary School in Pensacola.

“I feel like not much has changed, which is kind of sad. The only difference is that people were not as vocal back then. It was what it was, but you didn’t make a big deal of it,” Moultrie said.

It was the start of desegregation and, like many other African-American children, Moultrie received a clear message—other children do not have this opportunity and you have to do well.

She understood what that meant.

“There were two or three African-American girls and a couple of African-American boys in the first-grade class in 1966. We all wanted to compete and be the smartest in the class,” she said.

Moultrie received a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry from Florida State University. She initially wanted to be a pathologist.

When she graduated, however, she was no longer interested in the medical field and an opportunity opened up for her at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

She was the first female, and the first black person to work at the agency in a professional position.

Her first day on the job started with a 5 a.m. field activity on the Suwannee River. She had to pretend that she was not afraid of the bugs and snakes or the dark, murky river.

Her colleagues were tough. There was no room for mistakes and they made that clear to her on more than one occasion.

Moultrie worked for the agency for six years and applied for a job at Florida Power Corporation that took her from Tallahassee to St. Petersburg.

The person who initially interviewed Moultrie for the position told her that it would be difficult for them to hire a person “like her.” It was 1989.

“You would think things had gotten better by that time, but not so much. I said to him, ‘Let me prove myself. Don’t discount me because of what I look like – let me meet with the department and let them decide.’”

She was hired.

The director of the Environmental Department was very proud to tell people that she had hired her first black woman. Moultrie heard that for six months.

 To compete with her colleagues, she took engineering classes and eventually received her master’s degree in engineering management from the University of South Florida in Tampa.

From 1989 to 2018, a lot has changed.  There are more African-American women working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers – but still not enough and inequality still exists and many get discouraged and don’t stay in the field.

Despite advancements, few women earn degrees in the STEM subjects.

For women of color, the chances are even smaller. For example, in 2014 and 2015, black women made up 2.9 percent of bachelor’s degrees across all STEM fields. Latinas and Asian women came in at 3.6 percent and 4.8 percent.

Perhaps more women would be interested in STEM careers—especially environmental—if they were aware of how it affects everyday life.

The general lack of education on environmental issues is a huge concern. Many people do not understand how decisions that affect their health are made.  Unfortunately, those most affected are lower-income Americans.

Moultrie feels it is essential to get informed, be curious about environmental challenges and attend environmental forums.

“There are a lot of students getting interested and engaged in the subject.  I’m hoping that we end up with a broader group of the next generation knowing a lot more about the environment and how they can influence our future,” she said.

The angry one

At first glance, Moultrie fits with the “prototype” of an angry black woman. She has a scowl 90 percent of the time and has heard several times throughout her career that she “frowns” at meetings.

It’s not because she’s angry.

“I’m probably thinking, analyzing, about the next thing I have to do. It’s unfair to say that about anyone because you don’t know what anyone is feeling or experiencing,” she said.

***

Some years have passed since a young kindergartner was led by the hand of a dad that painted a bright future for her. A father who is no longer with her but was able to see his daughter become one of the few African-American scientist/engineers.

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