NASA’s most notorious “female computer,” Katherine Johnson, made famous by Taraji P. Henson in the 2016 Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures, passed away at age 101 on February 24, 2020, almost 3 years to the day after appearing on stage at the 2017 Oscars ceremony.
In a day and age when more focus is being put on encouraging females into STEM careers, this movie could not have been timed better. Not only did Ms. Johnson deserve recognition for her work on the space program that put men on the moon, her story brought forth a role model for girls (red, yellow, black, and white) to look up to and for women to appreciate.
In 2015, Katherine received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama 29 years after her retirement from Langley, where she “loved going to work every single day.” The infamous astronaut, John Glenn, knew how trusted Katherine was at NASA with her calculations. When it was his turn in 1962 to blast into space, he gave the green light for take-off after she verified the computer equations by hand.
When I saw the same scene as depicted in the movie, tears filled my eyes, as it reminded me of my own story of studying mathematics and statistics in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1991. I often filled chalkboards with theorems, proving their verity with formulas, split tests, and variables that seemed to never have an ending….until the answer magically appeared. As a black woman before the civil rights movement, Katherine had to fight for her findings well before she was given the opportunity to be a part of the team. Even then, she was hidden away with her colleagues in a separate area with segregated bathrooms.
That concept still carries on today with many women in STEM careers who are often overlooked for promotions, or whose research is dismissed. There were times in my own career where my male counterparts would throw me under the bus again and again, only for me to crawl out shaking a fistful of proof to dispute their assumptions. It wasn’t until my boss or another man would step in and say, “she’s right,” before they would back off.
As the “little girl who loved to count”, Ms. Johnson will continue to inspire the careers of women everywhere.
Melissa Schaffner is one such woman who is passing the torch. As an electrical engineer turned voiceover artist, she grew up Puerto Rican in a Jewish neighborhood. Without role models who looked like her, she often questioned which direction to take with her career. She developed a coloring book, Careers for Little Sisters, to inspire young girls to dream of being engineers, scientists, and anything they want without gender stereotypes to discourage them.
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