Home WCWinSTEM #WCWinSTEM: Katherine G. Johnson
#WCWinSTEM: Katherine G. Johnson

#WCWinSTEM: Katherine G. Johnson


This week’s #WCWinSTEM is Katherine G. Johnson, Black woman and NASA mathematician.


As compiled by Natasha Berryman, #VanguardSTEM Editor-in-Chief

As our third season draws to a close, we couldn’t think of a more inspiring or relevant story to guide our end-of-the-year discussions than the lives of the remarkable Black-women mathematicians at the center of Margot Lee Shetterly‘s Hidden Figures.

As such, please join us in celebrating this week’s #WCWinSTEM: Katherine G. JohnsonBlack woman. NASA mathematician. Wife. Friend. Unheralded global pioneer.

“Most Americans have no idea that from the 1940s through the 1960s, a cadre of African-American women formed part of the country’s space workforce,” said Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book Hidden Figures, on which the film of the same title—which is slated for a Christmas release—is based.

“We all know what a scientist looks like,” Shetterly writes on her website: “A wild-eyed person in a white lab coat and utilitarian eyeglasses, wearing a pocket protector and holding a test tube. Mostly male. Usually white.”

But when Shetterly was growing up in Hampton, Va., she writes, “The face of science was brown like mine. My dad was a NASA lifer, a career Langley Research Center scientist who became an internationally respected climate expert. Five of my father’s seven siblings were engineers or technologists. My father’s best friend was an aeronautical engineer. Our next-door neighbor was a physics professor.

“There were mathematicians at our church, sonic boom experts in my mother’s sorority and electrical engineers in my parents’ college alumni associations. . . . I knew so many African-Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.”

Turns out, that is exactly what they do and Mrs. Katherine G. Johnson was one of the best.


A short biography

Born on August 26, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia to Joylette (a teacher) and Joshua Coleman (a farmer and janitor), Mrs. Johnson both loved and excelled at mathematics from a young age. Brilliant as she was, she graduated from high school at the age of 14 and received Bachelors of Science in French and mathematics in 1932 from West Virginia State University (formerly West Virginia State College).

After college, Johnson taught in elementary and high schools in Virginia and West Virginia, but in 1953, she joined the Langley Research Center (LaRC) as a “west-area computer” for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the agency that preceded NASA. She worked in a pool of Black women performing math calculations until she was temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team, a role that would eventually become permanent.

It was here that she would calculate the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space; of John Glenn, the first American to orbit earth; and of Apollo 11, the first human mission to the moon. She literally wrote the manual on what Earth-orbital trajectories would look like. Johnson’s calculations were imperative in every major space flight program, from Mercury to Apollo to the space shuttle.

She retired in 1986 and won the National Medal of Freedom in 2015. Thank you for your contributions, Mrs. Johnson.


More to come. 

This month we’re focusing in on Hidden Figures, in preparation for the movie’s release on December 25, 2016. We have quite a few surprises in store for you as the month proceeds, so stay tuned to find out all of the exciting news that is to come on #VanguardSTEM. We’ll be unveiling our special season finale guest and we can assure you, you don’t want to miss it! So stick with us through the month and then join us for the season finale of #VanguardSTEM on December 6, 2016. In the meantime, you can read our previous post on Hidden Figures here.  STAY TUNED!!


Copyright © 2016 by Jedidah Isler

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