Katherine G. Johnson is an African-American mathematician whose work on orbital mechanics was instrumental to the success of the first U.S.-manned space flights. Her 35-year career at NASA began at a time when it was very difficult for women and people of color to enter the field.
When you were a young girl, how did your family and teachers encourage your passion for learning to flourish into a successful career in space?
My parents encouraged me to be inquisitive and to share what I had learned with others. One of my professors told me I’d make a good research mathematician, and a career in space sounded like an exciting and challenging path as it was a very new, uncharted field of science.
Even when NASA finally became desegregated, you still faced barriers due to gender and race. What kept you motivated to stay determined, assertive and make your name known in the face of adversity?
It was not my goal to “make my name known.” I was only focused on learning. I was excited by the challenges working with very smart people, and I wanted to be where the action was. I ignored the segregation and asked to attend meetings where equations were being developed and problems were being solved. My goal was to do my best, and I never let anything get in my way.
What are some of the obstacles you’ve noticed minorities still face in this industry? What advice would you give to young STEM students?
There are still people who have preconceived notions that women do not think in engineering or technological terms as easily as their male counterparts. Some think women are more emotional. These prejudices are more magnified for minorities. These notions may lend themselves to a lack of acceptance of minorities in equal roles in the workforce.
STEM students must learn their disciplines and be confident as they begin their assignments. They should have a passion for their chosen field. They must be confident enough to ask questions, work hard, be a team player and always pursue learning each day.
Your accomplishments didn’t come easily. How did you feel when receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Barack Obama in 2015?
I was extremely honored to be chosen by President Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States. I was surprised because I was just doing my job, nothing more and nothing less. I was part of a team of very smart people. I enjoyed what I was doing and looked forward to going to work every day to meet the next challenge.
What advice do you have for young women seeking further education and career opportunities in aerospace?
Be sure it is your passion. Always look to learn more. Take courses in mathematics and engineering and see if you enjoy and excel in them. Be confident in your knowledge and respect your colleagues.
Did you ever imagine the lasting impact your work and determination would have on the industry and female scientists of color?
No. I just followed my personal rule of doing my best at all times. The calculations I did as a part of the beginning of the country’s space program were important to me, and I made sure to work hard.
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