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Virginia’s “Hidden Figures” Inspire Next Generation of Scientists

The Oscar-nominated film and book Hidden Figures put a spotlight on the Black female mathematicians and engineers who worked at NASA. These Virginia women are sharing their stories and inspiring the next generation of female scientists. In this special Science Matters edition of Virginia Currents, Catherine Komp has more.

Learn More: Christine Darden will speak at VCU Friday April 7th from 4:15 to 5:15 p.m. in the Academic Learning Commons, room 1107, 1000 Floyd Ave. 

Transcript:

Growing up, Christine Mann Darden was often at her father’s side, helping fix the family car.

Christine Darden: I’d go out and help him change tires or sometimes with the oil and things like that.

Darden was curious. She wanted to figure out how things worked.

Darden: Mother said, she gave me a doll one time that talked and rather than play with it, I cut it open to see what made it talk.

After studying at Hampton Institute, Christine Darden began a career in teaching. Then she got a Masters Degree and applied for positions at Hampton and Norfolk State. But she also filled out an application for NASA.

Darden: And got offers from all three of them and talked to my husband about it and he actually is the one who suggested I take the job at NASA, it was a little more money.

That decision would lead to a 40-year-long career at NASA. Darden is featured in the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. She joined another pioneering Virginia mathematician Pearl Estelle Amy Smith at a Black History Museum discussion moderated by Richmond Times Dispatch Metro Columnist Michael Paul Williams. Smith had a 30-year-long career at the Dahlgren Naval Surface Warfare Center.

Pearl Estelle Amy Smith: I was one of the first women from Middlesex to receive a degree in Mathematics.

At Dahlgren, Smith led a unit of computer programmers.

Smith: We were the ones to find out what the problems were and why they could not run on a computer.

Smith and Darden were mentored by the same person, mathematician Reuben McDaniel at Virginia State. They both learned to navigate federal workplaces that were largely white and male and dealt with racism and sexism. Darden says male engineers would give them complex equations to solve without telling them the purpose. The “human computers” were also not recognized on final reports. But the women pushed forward. Darden, whose Masters was in applied mathematics, realized she was just as qualified as the male engineers. She started asking questions.

Darden: And I ultimately went to a boss several levels up, after I had been turned down several times, and said why is it women come in here with the same background as many of your male engineers who have math degrees yet they’re put into a computer office… and there’s no way to actually get promotions very much. And the men coming here with the same background are put into an engineering section… they work on their own projects, write papers, give papers and move head. The answer to me was “Nobody ever asked that question before.” And I said I’m asking it now. I must have hit that boss on a good day… but he transferred me to an engineering section.

In the beginning, Darden was a data analyst and computer programmer in the re-entry physics branch. That’s the section that worked on space capsules returning to the atmosphere. Later, she was promoted to aerospace engineer. Her first assignment: write a computer program to help minimize the sonic boom of supersonic planes.

Darden: So I had to come up with the solution of how to solve this and pull it all together and code it in Fortran. Fortran is what we were using to write the codes then. And go through the usual process of debugging, getting the wrong things out of it and making sure the answers I was getting were right answers which is another thing you have to check for. That was a pretty good piece and I think it’s still used.

Darden led research groups at NASA and authored more than 50 papers related to supersonic flight and sonic boom minimization. She started at NASA 15 to 20 years after Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson, the scientists depicted in the film Hidden Figures.

Darden: I think the fact that they did their jobs so very well set a precedent and probably changed some opinions about how black women worked. Because I’m sure a lot of the folk around there had expectations that these people aren’t going to be really good workers and so forth. So in that respect I think I stood on their shoulders.

The Black History Museum discussion attracted people from around the state, including one of Darden’s former students.

Maude Bernette Fletcher Johnson: I was in high school and she was fresh out of Hampton University and so she was my math teacher and her husband was our biology teacher.

Fifty years later, Maude Bernette Fletcher Johnson was beaming as she waited for her former teacher to speak.

Johnson: It’s extremely inspirational, just to hear the story and how they persevered and become successful, it just gives everyone the courage to think I can do this too, this is something that’s achievable.

Patricia Burrell: When you say pioneering women, those are some pioneering women, it just gives us great courage… .

Patricia Burrell and her husband saw the film Hidden Figures on Valentine’s Day.

Burrell: Even though I know there was some license that had to be taken because it’s entertainment and the movies, I thought it stayed true to the message and it really demonstrated first of all how intelligent and smart and eager they were to change and also it had a mirror on what was going on in those times.

Since the release of Hidden Figures, Christine Darden has stayed busy, speaking to school groups after they see the film.

Darden: They all talk about how inspired they are… so right now that’s what we’re hearing and I’m hoping that sticks and it’s a long term inspiration and they will be willing to keep going.

When giving advice to young people, Darden says she uses a math formula: P to the fourth power.

Darden: If you really have something perceive of yourself in that job and go find out what you need to do to get to that job, make this plan and then work that plan, start preparing, starting working what you have to do to get to that job. And the fourth p is persist, because you’re going to run into some problems and everything and you might have to try and try again to do certain things, but that’s the way you get to something you really want to do.

For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.