I waited with great anticipation to see the movie, Hidden Figures. I was so inspired when I saw it. I learned that many of my experiences were also those of these three fabulous women. The way young Katherine Johnson explained the mathematical equations in one of the opening scenes felt right at home. FORTRAN was the first programming language I learned, and I ran them on a massive IBM computer. I left the movie excited, inspired, and also knowing that their story is my story.
However, I did not expect the sense of connection and history I experienced when I read the book. That’s when I learned the story of Dr. Christine Darden, the fourth woman profiled in the book. She worked as a supersonic aircraft designer at NASA. It turns out that I used some of her groundbreaking work in computational fluid dynamics (CFD) in my Ph.D. thesis research. It was then that I knew I stood on her shoulders and we have a historical connection. I immediately felt as though I had to meet her and began to look for ways to make this happen.
Several weeks later I learned that Dr. Darden was coming to the area for “STEM Resilience: Dinner and Conversation with Dr. Christine Darden”, an event at a local restaurant. I was so excited and immediately purchased a ticket. I reached out to the host, asking her to allow me to spend just a few minutes with Dr. Darden one-on-one. Well, she actually had me sit next to her for the evening. We spent 90 minutes together, getting to know each other, sharing our experiences, and conversing and sharing words of wisdom with three young ladies at the table with us.
Dr. Darden is a very warm, soft-spoken and affable individual. She is also wise as a serpent, but soft as a dove. We talked about her professional experiences as well as her beloved family. (She knew quite a bit about my background, as someone had shared my vita with her before she arrived). I was very interested in her NASA career, including how she navigated and overcame her challenging environment to make her impact. She was very competent in her work and asked the right questions at the right time. For example, when she noticed that her male colleagues who started at NASA with similar credentials began to advance, she asked her manager about her advancement. When she did not get an acceptable answer, she went straight to the director and asked him. His response was that no one had ever asked him that question. Within a few weeks, she was promoted to engineer, from her position as a human computer. Dr. Darden mentioned to us that she only learned that the women in the NASA diversity office championed her cause by reading the book. She did not know prior to that.
I asked her how she developed her work on CFD algorithms. It turns out her boss more or less left her along to think and work, and that’s how she was able to do her work. In fact, she was the sole author on a paper describing her groundbreaking work. She spoke very fondly of her boss, and stayed in contact him for many years after he retired.
We also compared notes about our time in graduate school. Our experiences were similar. When she walked into a classroom, she was the only woman and her classmates were all Caucasian men. My classes were primarily Caucasian and Asian men and maybe two or three women, including me. The difference was that her classmates were willing to work with her, to be part of working groups. For me, no one but the foreign students would work with me. Of course they turned out to be the smartest students in class so I was always in good groups.
I told her about my experiences where students and faculty said unpleasant things to me, such as “I believe you’re in the wrong place” or “I don’t think you’re going to make it here, but we’ll take your fellowship money”. She was appalled at this and asked me how I coped. I told her that I knew the truth, and they would eventually learn the truth. I did belong there and I eventually made believers out of them! She mentioned that for some, that would have been a discouragement. Not so with me. What is enlightening to me is she did not have such experiences in school.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Dr. Darden, getting to know her, learning about her career and her family. I will always cherish the personal time I had with her!
I was very thankful to the host of the evening, Dr. Christine Grant. She is one of the first African-American women to earn a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering, and a professor and associate Dean at North Carolina State University. I suggested that the three of us take pictures at this event, for this is history. I’ve included this picture with the three or us, along with one I took with Dr. Darden.