These days more and more girls are being encouraged to enter the typically male-dominated field of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Every girl needs someone to be inspired by, though; someone who’s paved the way for them. Look no further than your own television screen to learn about mathematician and engineer Katherine Johnson.
A prodigy is born
Katherine was the youngest of four children and grew up in West Virginia. Her natural propensity for math was apparent at a young age and her parents did their best to nurture her talents. Unfortunately, there was no public high schools in her area for African Americans.
When she was only 10 years old, Katherine was admitted into a high school on the campus of West Virginia State College. She was admitted into college at the age of 14 and took every math course at the school!
Entering the work force
Katherine wanted to be a research mathematician, but it wasn’t easy in early ’50s America. African Americans and women were not seen as equals in society or the workplace. She found jobs in teaching, but she wanted to pursue her true passion.
While at a family get-together, Katherine learned that the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory was hiring mathematicians. She landed a job in 1953 as a human “computer” doing mathematical calculations. However, her knowledge of analytical geometry gained the trust of her white male colleagues.
A hidden figure no more
Although the racial and gender barriers still existed, Katherine refused to be held back. Women’s names weren’t typically on the reports that engineers produced, but Katherine made sure hers was. She continued to earn the respect of her peers.
Katherine led the way to desegregate her workplace, which eventually became NASA. She became an aerospace technologist and played an important role in the U.S. getting ahead in the space race, eventually calculating the trajectory for Apollo 11’s flight to the moon. Her inspiring story, along with her fellow African-American women engineers at NASA, was retold in the hit movie, Hidden Figures. Katherine received the highest American civilian honor when she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.