Denise Michelle Stephenson-Hawk


First Name: Denise
Middle Name: Michelle
Last Name: Stephenson-Hawk


College: Spelmen College
Degree: B.S.
Graduation Year: 1986
Major: Mathematics

Degree: M.S.

Degree: Ph.D.
Graduation Year: 1986
Major: Physics


Denise Michelle Stephenson was born in a small town in North Carolina. She grew up poor and attended segregated schools through the ninth grade, but she never felt underprivileged. Her mother had finished high school, but her father had dropped out of school in the third grade. Her teachers were African Americans and she was shown the contributions of women and minority figures throughout history. However, she had few women or minority role models in science.

Denise remembers always loving school. She was a good student and especially enjoyed math. She remembers that she had an ability to understand the "new math," even when her teachers did not! When she reached high school, she attended an integrated school where she was not placed with the college-bound students. Her mother had to convince the principal to move her into the class preparing for college. Ms. Stephensonk skipped the twelfth grade and went right into Spelman College majoring in math. During the summer, she received a scholarship to attend a special program at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The experience changed her life. She was the only African American and the only woman working on a project that involved testing panels for the Space Shuttle Program. After that, she decided to apply her math skills to studying atmospheric science.

Stephenson received her masters degree in environmental modeling (using computers to simulate environmental conditions) from George Washington University. She was also the only African American and the only woman among the students and teachers in her field of interest.

She chose the best atmospheric and oceanic sciences program in the country to pursue her Ph.D., at Princeton University. She was one of only two women ever to get a degree in the program (the other had attended 20 years earlier). There were no other minorities in the program at that time. She found it rough there, with few people accepting her. In addition, she was married (and named Denise Graves at that time) with an infant son to care for during that period. She worked hard and persevered, intent on being the first black woman in the program to earn a Ph.D. from Princeton. She had to succeed, knew she could, and did!

After completing her Ph.D. at Princeton, she worked at AT&T Bell Laboratories. She created complex mathematical models with computers to understand how sound travels in the ocean for the purpose of detecting and tracking submarines. Next, she went back to Spelman and taught courses in math and mathematical modeling, encouraging young African American women to go on to advanced study in these areas. In 1998 Dr. Stephens-Hawk was Senior Research Scientist at Clark Atlanta University and in 1999 was Chair of the Department of Physics at Clark Atlanta.

In 2000, for one year, Dr. Stephenson-Hawk was Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs of Spelman College, Atlanta, Georgia. She strongly believes women and minority students can walk down the trail she has blazed. She continues to excite students with her ideas, both in her college classes and in the local schools she visits, encouraging them to continue studying math and science. She is a board member of National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Science Advisory Board. 



Year Born: 1955