This is the ninth in a series about Famous Women in STEM History. The goal of these articles is to encourage young women and girls to pursue a career in the STEM fields. I hope you share these stories so that others will hear the accomplishments of these women and be thus inspired to also find success in a STEM field.

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You recognize her name from the movie “Hidden Figures”, and the reason the movie was so fascinating is because Katherine Johnson has lived an equally fascinating life.

Born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, WV, Katherine showed a strong aptitude for numbers at an early age. Katherine’s mother, being an educator, recognized her daughter’s gift, as well as the limited educational opportunities for African American students where they lived in Greenbrier County, WV. By the age of 10, Katherine qualified to enter high school and her parents enrolled her in a high school located on the campus of West Virginia State College. By 14, Katherine was enrolled in college at West Virginia State College, graduating at the age of 18, Summa Cum Laude, with a degree in mathematics and French.

While is college Katherine was mentored by several professors, including W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, only the third African American to receive a PhD in math. Claytor added new math courses just for Katherine and actively encouraged her to pursue research mathematics, a result that would have a profound impact on her future.

After graduating from college, Katherine taught in the public schools, became the first African American woman to attend graduate school at the University of West Virginia, and raised a family. It was at a family gathering in 1952 that she would hear about a job opportunity that would change her life.

The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor of NASA, was hiring mathematicians for their Guidance and Navigation Department. Katherine was offered a job in 1953 and became part of the early NASA team.

According to an oral history archived by the National Visionary Leadership Project:

At first, she [Johnson] worked in a pool of women performing math calculations. Katherine has referred to the women in the pool as virtual “computers who wore skirts”. Their main job was to read the data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other precise mathematical tasks. Then one day, Katherine (and a colleague) were temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team. Katherine’s knowledge of analytic geometry helped make quick allies of male bosses and colleagues to the extent that, “they forgot to return me to the pool”. While the racial and gender barriers were always there, Katherine says she ignored them. Katherine was assertive, asking to be included in editorial meetings (where no women had gone before). She simply told people she had done the work and that she belonged.

From 1958 until her retirement in 1986, Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist, moving during her career to the Spacecraft Controls Branch. She calculated the trajectory for the May 5, 1961 space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. She also calculated the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission, as well as plotted backup navigation charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures. When NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth, officials called on Johnson to verify the computer’s numbers; Glenn had asked for her specifically and had refused to fly unless Johnson verified the calculations. Johnson later worked directly with digital computers. Her ability and reputation for accuracy helped to establish confidence in the new technology.

Johnson co-authored 25 scientific pages, won the Presidential Medal of Freedom award in 2015, numerous alumnus and honorary doctorate awards, and her name adorns NASA’s new 40,000 square foot “Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility” located at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Source: Wikipedia and Biography.com

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Sheri Yarbray is a CEO, the founder of Your Therapy Source LLC a home healthcare staffing company, a STEM entrepreneur, and proud mom. Sheri is passionate about delivering high quality home healthcare to patients, inspiring young women to move into STEM careers, and sharing ideas about managing a balance between a work and a home life. You can follow Sheri on LinkedIn @Sheri Yarbray

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