ORR school official braved new frontier for biomed engineering dream

MATTAPOISETT — For those with a need to keep an eye on the oxygen levels in their blood — a need that could stem from long-term medical issues or having an infection such as COVID — a pulse oximeter can be a vital piece of equipment. However, those with darker skin who depend on this device are inherently at a disadvantage, says Mattapoisett resident Frances Feliz Kearns.

“That product does not work as accurately on people of color due to the melanin and the way it works with infrared technology,” Kearns said.

Advocating to have problems such as this one addressed is one way Kearns says her life experiences as a woman of color and daughter of an immigrant come through in her work as a director of engineering at Cambridge-based Takeda Pharmaceuticals. “I try to bring my lens of diversity, equity and inclusion into that role, identifying people from my social circles who I think might be a good fit at the organization, potentially looking at how the products we design impact people of different groups.”

But before earning her degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, followed by a Master’s from the National Graduate School of Quality Management, and making her career in the biomedical engineering field, the New Bedford High class of ’98 alum says she was a curious kid with a thing for sci-fi.

Beaming up to high aspirations

“I was always interested in sci-fi shows and ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ was one of them,” she said, adding she especially took note of character Geordi La Forge — chief engineer of the iconic Starship Enterprise — played by African-American actor LeVar Burton, sporting the unmistakable high-tech eye visor that became synonymous with the role. “The visor was a biomedical tool! … So, I kind of got the bug for biomedical engineering starting from the representation I saw on TV.”

Old Rochester Regional School Committee member and native of New Bedford Frances Feliz Kearns is seen with husband Tom, and their two children TJ and Jazmin. The Kearns live in Mattapoisett where TJ and Jazmin attend ORR schools. Kearns says promoting equity, diversity and inclusion comes as a top priority in her work as a school official and in her professional life in biomedical engineering.

Perhaps Star Trek was an appropriate segue into her field, as ultimately, Kearns says to enter it at the time that she did was to explore a strange, new frontier. “Biomedical engineering was a new field and it wasn’t very well-defined,” she said, also noting she’d often find herself the only Black woman in the room. “Engineering is a predominantly male field so having to explain to my male counterparts that I’m capable of conducting experiments or using tools to the same level that they can do was also one of those challenges.”

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Family roots in STEM

But sci-fi TV wasn’t the only thing Kearns had going for her in her early development as a science wiz, as both of her parents had strong backgrounds in STEM — or science, technology, engineering, mathematics — her father, Dr. Thomas Patrick Zgambo, being an engineer for Polaroid in New Bedford, and mother, Dr. Anita Zgambo, a doctorate in the field of instructional technology.

“My father immigrated to the U.S. in the ’70s from Malawi (in Central Africa) and moved throughout the U.S. but settled in New Bedford when he worked for Polaroid,” Kearns said. “I would go to family events of the employees and he exposed me to his co-workers who were fellow engineers.

“It wasn’t just my parents — I was fortunate to also have a lot of other support in the community — but they were a huge influence.”

But growing up, even in a city as diverse as New Bedford, her parents’ impressive resumes were not enough to shield the family from racism, whether intentionally inflicted or out of ignorance.

“My hair was kind of a big thing that followed me all the way from elementary school to high school,” Kearns said. “It wasn’t the direct type of racial comments you might expect; it’s more like, ‘What’s wrong with your hair? Why can’t you style it properly? Why can’t you just put it up?’ — that type of thing. Sometimes people would just touch it without asking.

“Plus, I had a last name that was extremely different from people in the community.”

In a Standard-Times article from February 1996, Kearns’ father shared his experiences with disapproving stares, harassing phone calls that prompted multiple number changes, and dealing with reactions to his marriage to Kearns’ mother, who the article notes as having been perceived as Caucasian due to a fair complexion, but is in fact of Mexican-American and Native American background, Kearns said.

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Fortunately for her, Kearns says the support of family, friends and educators were enough to keep her interested in education and her spark for STEM alive. “I was very lucky that I had a good group of friends who rallied around me and supported me, and I also had some great teachers … who made sure I understood that I belonged in the school system and were presenting STEM opportunities that were interesting to me and it kept me motivated to keep going through school,” she said, also noting some anticipatory discussions her parents had with her on the type of treatment she’d come to experience.

New generation, same issues

Nowadays, Kearns’ life mirrors her parents’ in a few aspects: Not only is Kearns working in a STEM field, but she, too, is married to someone of another race, and has found it necessary to discuss many of the same issues around racism with her children.

“My husband is Irish-American, and my son’s skin tone is actually close to mine, and then my daughter’s is very fair, but she’s got my hair … so a lot of what I experienced, she’s working through that now,” Kearns said, noting her son TJ, 11, is a sixth grader at Old Hammondtown Elementary School and daughter Jazmin, 12, is in seventh grade at ORR Junior High.

Earlier this school year, an incident TJ experienced at school went beyond the usual ignorant question or remark and into the realm of blatant racial attack. “In a quiet moment when we were alone, in a very quiet, very small voice he told me ‘a kid called me the N-word and said I was a burnt chicken nugget,'” Kearns said. “It actually took some work to get people to understand that this was happening in the school and in the district.

“I’ve had talks with them kind of prepping them for stuff like this but … it was disappointing for me that it happened.”

Despite this incident and other, more subtle ones, Kearns says her family’s experience since moving to Mattapoisett in 2018 has been mostly positive. “I’ve met some wonderful people here who made me feel very welcome,” she said, noting that joining the School Committee in 2020 helped her form many relationships in the community. “But like any community there are people who don’t want certain groups of people in the town and may not be as welcoming to people coming in.

“I don’t think it’s the majority — there’s just a lack of diversity here, and that can make it challenging for people to see things from other people’s perspective. … We definitely have a lot of work to do.”

Data from the 2020 U.S. Census indicates those who identify as “white alone” made up 96.1% of Mattapoisett’s population.

Committee work

When it comes to her work on the ORR School Committee, as well as wanting to join in the first place, Kearns says her experiences growing up and in STEM have been big motivators. Kearns is also on the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Subcommittee first formed in 2020. “I wanted to make sure there was somebody on the committee who would advocate for folks from different groups,” she said.

Aside from building more acceptance of diversity in the school community, Kearns said another thing she emphasizes is the importance of presenting STEM opportunities to students of all backgrounds. “I know in the past sometimes students of color may not have been presented with the same opportunities as other students in the STEM field based on potential biases so I think that it’s important that we provide everybody those opportunities early on and continue to foster them as they grow so they can see themselves in it,” she said.

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Kearns said she also keeps an eye out for ways the district can benefit from her field connections. Last year, Kearns said she was able to connect ORR with Worcester Polytechnic Institute to bring grant funding to the district that purchased around $6,000 worth of new robots and training.

“My son is in the robotics club. He loves it,” she said.

Another motivator behind her involvement with the school district, Kearns says, has been to pay tribute to the diverse system of community support that benefitted her development. And therein lies what Kearns says will be crucial in evening the playing field for marginalized groups both within her local community and in society at large.

“For me it feels great to be able to honor all the groups that helped me get where I am today and motivated me to want to take this on,” Kearns said, noting having received recognitions and support from New Bedford City Council members, the NAACP, Jewish War Veterans of the USA, and Congressman Barney Frank, among others. “If you look at my background, I was supported by people of many different groups … and I think we need to have those discussions: how can we support each other?”