Katherine Johnson, an African-American mathematician who made critical contributions to the space program at NASA, became a household name after the famous book, Hidden Figures, and subsequent movie, detailed her work for the space organization. Johnson passed away in February 2020 at the age of 101, but her legacy as a scientist and female empowerment icon lives on. Here’s a reflection on seven lessons we learned from her life and influential career.
1. Mentors make a difference.
Johnson entered West Virginia State College High School at age 14 where she met and took classes with Angie Turner King, one of the first African-American women to earn a master’s degree in math and chemistry. She also met W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics in America. These early mentors influenced her decision to become a research mathematician.
2. High school mathematics count
After completing the regular high school curriculum, Claytor created advanced classes just for Johnson, including a course on analytic geometry. She would later use some of these analytical skills to verify the computer calculations for John Glenn’s orbit around the earth and to help determine the trajectory for Apollo 11.
3. Grit matters
Johnson was one of three carefully selected students to desegregate West Virginia University’s graduate program and fought to become the first woman to have her name on a NASA research report.
4. The power of self-advocacy
Women were not allowed to attend the NASA Test Flight briefings until Johnson asked so many questions about the briefings’ content that she was eventually allowed to attend.
5. The power of a team
Johnson joined the West Computing Group at Langley Research Center at a time when only two percent of all African-American women had earned a college degree. The group meticulously checked each others’ work to ensure no errors were made.
6. The power of advocating for other women
After Johnson moved to the Maneuver Load Branch of the Flight Research Division, Dorothy Vaughan, her previous boss told her new director Henry Pearson to give Johnson a raise or send her back to the West Computing Group. Johnson’s work was so good Pearson had no choice but to offer her a full-time job and a pay raise.
7. The legacy of possibility
Johnson inspired generations of women to pursue careers in math and science and her story will continue to do so even after her passing in 2020. The U.S. State Department showed Hidden Figures throughout the developing world to encourage girls and women to consider the possibilities of careers in math and science. Mattel also created a Katherine Johnson Barbie in its “Inspiring Women” series.
Johnson’s loss is mourned by all who were inspired and uplifted by her lifetime of service as a pioneering woman in science, and her legacy of determination and empowerment will live on for generations.