When she was seven years old, Mwenda KudumuBiggs developed a passion for research and exploration when she went on a school trip to a science center and got to hold a live snake.
“I was hooked,” she recalled. “I was going to be a scientist.”
That passion grew, leading her later in life to occasionally ditch school to explore the Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
Now, her journey has come full circle and KudumuBiggs has joined the Fleet as its new vice president of community service and engagement.
It’s a long title for what KudumuBiggs has always strived to do — connect people, especially children, to a life of studying science and asking questions.
And it comes with extra motivation for a Black girl who was raised in the Valencia Park neighborhood of San Diego and who has spent her career working in places with mostly white male colleagues.
KudumuBiggs, whose first name means “beloved” in parts of Africa, attended attended Gompers Preparatory Academy and earned a bachelor of science degree in biology from Stanford University and a PhD in philosophy in learning and teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) from North Carolina State University.
Her career took her to science museums in California, New York and North Carolina and to developing a science and technology center at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana.
At the Fleet, she wants to bring the museum closer to the diverse neighborhoods of San Diego.
“I think the diversity of San Diego is one of the reasons I was so interested in coming back here because I feel that one of the things that’s been happening with science and technology is we’ve had a lack of diverse voices in the development and production of science and technology,” she said. “When science is devoid of other perspectives, other voices, then it becomes problematic in the sense that it does not serve all of humanity.”
To accomplish her goal will take listening to community residents and leaders to learn about their needs.
“We can’t just go with where the community is now,” she said. “We have to look at where the community wants to go.”
That means engaging the youth, especially in STEM subjects. One way the museum is trying to do that is by holding “Community Mornings” bringing busloads of students or residents to the Fleet to knock down barriers to learning.
The first such event in July brought 200 visitors from San Ysidro. The second one this past weekend brought residents from National City.
The event resonates with KudumuBiggs. The passion that was ignited by holding a rosy boa constrictor started with a similar visit to the Elementary Institute of Science, a longstanding, nonprofit educational hub in Southeastern San Diego. Her interests were further stoked by a career where she was one of the few persons of color.
“Everybody that I worked with wore Birkenstocks and had beards,” she said. “They were white.”
Now, she’s one of the faces of the Fleet and enjoys getting out of her office and talking with visitors at the museum’s exhibits. She watches as kids push buttons and play with the interactive exhibits. She engages with the displays herself to draw visitors to the exhibits.
“I hook kids or students or anybody I’m talking to by showing them when they ask questions, and then they go through a systematic way of trying to find out the answer to that question, they’re a scientist,” she explained.