Civil engineering major Morgan King and Savannah Lusk, who majors in exercise physiology, know first-hand how difficult it can be for women to succeed in male-dominated fields of study. But the pair found inspiration from someone whose story only recently came to light: Katherine Johnson.
Thanks to the book and feature film, “Hidden Figures,” the world has become aware of Johnson’s story. A native of West Virginia, Johnson was the first woman to desegregate the graduate school at West Virginia University. After teaching for seven years, she went to work in 1953 as a pool mathematician or “computer” for the Langley Research Center, part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (now NASA) in Hampton, Virginia.
“Hidden Figures” details the life of Johnson, who along with Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson worked on the early space program, including computing the launch window for astronaut Alan Shepard’s 1961 Mercury mission. In 1962, computers were used for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth. NASA officials even called on her to verify the numbers generated by the computers. She also calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo flight to the moon.
“I became aware of Ms. Johnson’s story from my mother over the past summer, as she had long known about it,” King, a Charleston native, said. “After learning about these ‘rocket girls,’ I decided to do more research on them myself.”
King shared that information with Lusk, who was “floored” by her story.
“I was moved by her accomplishments,” Lusk, a native of Covel, said. “Her story inspired me, and I wanted more people to be reminded of her life and experiences.”
Together, the two Honors College students contacted officials at WVU in an effort to create a lasting tribute to Johnson. While she studied mathematics at WVU, the NASA connections in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources made it an ideal fit for the tribute. As part of its National Engineers Week events, the College unveiled a plaque in Johnson’s honor on Feb. 21.
“Though Ms. Johnson studied mathematics, the work she produced would have been housed in the Statler College had it been done today,” King said. “The notion that she and the other ‘computers’ could become engineers was unheard of until Mary Jackson became NASA’s first African American female engineer. Honoring Ms. Johnson in the department where her male peers would have studied has a lot of symbolism in it. Further, the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium Office, which is adjacent to the conference room, ended up being the perfect fit.”
The unveiling was a proud moment for the pair, who hope its symbolism will be appreciated by future generations of women in STEM fields of study.
“I realize the importance of females in STEM, as more women educated in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will result in increased inclusivity and in the expansion of ideas,” King said. “The viewpoints of women broaden the possible solutions, and Ms. Johnson is proof of this. Her persistence to follow her passion and achieve incredible results, despite the constant adversity she faced, is an inspiration to me. Though she was not appreciated appropriately for her contributions until more than 50 years later, she still persisted.”
Lusk agreed, adding, “There are times I do get discouraged. Even in this day and time, I am told I can't do things simply because of my gender; most notably my experience as the alternate Mountaineer Mascot. To see someone overcome so much and accomplish something so great makes me think I could possibly do the same one day. Her story reminds me anything is possible.”
CONTACT: Mary C. Dillon, Statler College of Engineering
and Mineral Resources