We all know about cool guys in STEM; you could hardly consider yourself educated if you didn’t know who Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, or Nikola Tesla are. Too often, however, we forget about the cool ladies that have impacted STEM. With this blog, I hope to educated my readers about interesting women in technology, past and present, and hopefully inspire my fellow ladies to study/keep studying STEM. Today I am going to start with the story of Katherine Johnson, the star of the recent box-office hit “Hidden Figures.”
“Do your best and like what you do.” This is a motto that Katherine Johnson, a former mathematician at NASA, lives by. Growing up in West Virginia, she credits much of her success to her family’s encouragement. During her 33 year career at NASA, she worked on several key projects, such as Mercury and the Apollo missions. In addition to her technical accomplishments, Johnson exhibits strong character and humbleness, making her a true American hero. Johnson’s West Virginia origins, amazing accomplishments, and strong character make her an inspiration to me.
Katherine Johnson was born in White Sulfur Springs, WV and attended high school and college in West Virginia. She credits much of her success to her parents encouragement. Her father always told her “You are no better than anyone else, and no one is better than you.” Originally a farmer, her father moved into town so his four children could attend high school and college. He always emphasized the importance of education and made it his goal that all four of his children would receive college degrees. Katherine Johnson was a prodigy, and skipped several grades. She was always counting, and had a strong desire to learn (Hughes). As a West Virginia native, I feel particularly connected to Johnson’s childhood. I have visited many of the places she inhabited and grew up in a similar cultural environment. Much stigma surrounds this beautiful state, and Johnson’s story empowers me to overcome these stereotypes.
Although she received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and completed graduate work, Katherine Johnson was not able to fulfill her dream of being a research mathematician until she was thirty-five years old, when NASA (then known as NACA) opened an African American computing unit. Johnson was still motivated to pursue her goal, and accomplished many great things throughout her career. In one of her first projects, she analyzed the black box data of a propeller plane to figure out why it fell out of the sky. By plotting and analyzing the data, she helped engineers discover that larger planes can leave disturbances in the air for up to thirty minutes after they pass through, causing the propeller crash. Johnson also successfully calculated the desired launch site for Project Mercury, the United State’s first human space flight mission. Working backwards from the desired landing site and taking the earth’s rotation in account, she was able to plot the path for astronaut Alan Shepard’s (first American in space) flight path and determine the optimal launch site. Additionally, astronaut John Glenn insisted that she check the orbital calculations of the IBM 7090 computer and stated if she said the numbers were correct he was ready to launch. Glenn’s mission was successful and he became the first American to orbit Earth.
In many of her interviews, Johnson states that the accomplishments she is most proud of are the Apollo missions. She assisted with the calculations that synchronized the moon-orbiting Command and Service module with Apollo’s Lunar Lander. She worked on the Space Shuttle system and by the time she retired after 33 years at NASA she had authored or co authored 26 research reports. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the presidential medal of freedom, the highest honor a civilian can receive.
Johnson, however, is extremely humble about her accomplishments, and at the time of her work was not very aware of all the barriers she was breaking. Instead of focusing on the challenges society gave her in her interviews, she gives advice for young people to accomplish their goals. In many of her interviews (WHROTV), she encourages young people to “do your best, and like what you do. If you don’t like what you do, you won’t do your best.” She always tried to find the root of questions, and to continue to answer questions throughout her life and career.
As a NASA intern for two summers, Johnson’s story is especially inspiring to me; she is a true American hero. Instead of using the obstacles she faced as excuses to not achieve, she overcame her obstacles. Instead of condemning society for the hardships it gave her, she maintains a positive outlook on life. She always worked hard, and instilled this value in her children. Patriotism, pride in one’s work, and humbleness are three things I highly value, and Johnson exemplifies all these virtues.
Katherine Johnson inspires me to not let my origins or gender limit what I may accomplish. Instead of letting the roadblocks in her path serve as excuses to not accomplish her goals, she effectively overcame her obstacles so she could get her work done. Her desires in life were simple, but impactful: research math, and surround herself with other intelligent people. Because of her humility and strong character, Katherine Johnson is my hero.
If you want to learn more about Katherine Johnson, I highly recommend you watch this interview.
Hughes, June. “BIOGRAPHY: Katherine Johnson, Space Scientist.” The Heroine Collective, 8 Sept. 2015, www.theheroinecollective.com/katherine-johnson-space-scientist
Loff, Sarah. “Katherine Johnson Biography.” NASA, NASA, 22 Nov. 2016, www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography.
WHROTV. “What Matters – Katherine Johnson: NASA Pioneer and ‘Computer.’” YouTube, YouTube, 25 Feb. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8gJqKyIGhE.