Women of NASA visit Warhill High School

aheymann@vagazette.com

On International Women’s Day, four women who work at NASA spoke to Warhill High School students after a screening of “Hidden Figures.”

“Hidden Figures” is a movie based on the true story of three black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the space race of the 1960s. The main characters are Katherine Johnson, the mathematician who calculated the flight and landing trajectories for Project Mercury, Dorothy Vaughn, NASA’s first African American supervisor, and Mary Jackson, an aerospace engineer at NASA.

Last year the movie blew up across the nation, putting these previously hidden figures into the spotlight for their contributions to the scientific community. Their notoriety has become so mainstream, Barbie has released a doll based on Katherine Johnson as part of their new “Role Models” line.

At the Warhill showing, almost everyone in the auditorium had already seen the movie. What really drew them to the event was getting to hear from the modern day women who work at the agency.

The four guest panelists from NASA were Christyl Johnson, deputy director for technology and research investments, Debbie Martinez, execution manager for the Transformative Aeronautics Concepts Program/Convergent Aeronautics Solicitations Project, Julie Williams-Bryd, deputy center chief technologist, and Cecelia Smith, team lead financial management specialist in the office of the chief financial officer at NASA Langley Research Center. Students were able to pick the minds of these women during a 30 minute Q&A session.

When asked what they thought of the movie, Smith said “It is one of my most favorite movies. Ever.”

Williams-Byrd said she was able to attend several movie openings across the country. She was encouraged by the number of young girls she saw in the theaters get excited and motivated about STEM because of the movie.

“We have so many young girls now willing to come through NASA and do internships and come through to just take tours because now they realize ‘this is something I can do,’” Williams-Byrd said. “It's not just for the boys, it’s not something that’s geekish. It’s something that can be really cool and a lot of fun.”

Smith said seeing people become inspired by the movie has encouraged her to go out and talk to more young girls about how they to can work for NASA. Smith said NASA supports and encourages their employees to go out and talk to young people because they know how important it is to reach out to youth and let them know what opportunities are available for them.

Another reason the panelists enjoyed the movie was because they had never heard of these women before it. Johnson accredited the women in it for her being able to work at NASA today.

“We are able to do these things because our hidden figures they just blew the doors open,” Johnson said. “I consider that I am personally standing on their shoulders.”

A mother in the audience asked the panelists what advice they had for students who wanted to work for NASA. Williams-Byrd said she began at NASA as an intern and never left. Johnson added the agency offers internships, summer residential programs and virtual mentorships for students. However, she said all of these programs are very competitive, and students must work very hard in school to get into them. Martinez said grades are a must, because applicants are competing against thousands of other people.

Williams-Byrd suggested asking to take a tour of NASA as a way to put your foot in the door for opportunities like internships.

“When you actually meet a person and you open the door that way, if you make a connection with an engineer or a scientist you want to work with, that is much easier than doing a cold application to the center, and having nobody to call that you can say ‘hi just put my application in, is there any way you could look at it and see if there is a connection,’” Williams-Byrd said. “It really is about making those connections.”

Martinez said one of the biggest things is to just apply. From her experience, she said many students get too intimidated by the application process to even try.

“It is competitive but you have to apply,” Martinez said.

Martinez also suggested applying to more programs than just the one you’re most interested in, or a research center that may be in another part of the country. She said you’d learn something no matter what program you enter.

Aside from the movie and advice, the panel also discussed their experiences working for NASA. Everyone said they loved their job, which is not surprising since Smith said NASA has been ranked the best federal agency to work for six years running. Martinez said NASA gives her the opportunity to “play with the best toys,” and she has even learned how to fly a plane because of her job. Johnson said a perk of working at NASA is getting paid to travel the world and meet other people in your field.

“We have people working until they are 80-years-old and they just won’t leave because it’s just so much fun,” Johnson said.

Martinez said another great thing about working for NASA is its appreciation for diversity. She said no matter what you look like or where you are from, as long as you are working as hard as everyone else there’s an equal opportunity for you. Johnson said that diversity not only existed in ethnicity, or gender but also in careers.

“We have the lawyers, the accountants, the photographers,” Johnson said. “there’s something for everyone at NASA, and that is a wonderful thing.”

Want to learn more?

To learn more about these panelists, and other women who work at NASA you can visit women.nasa.gov.

Find out about internships and other educational programs available for students at NASA visit nasa.gov. The deadline for internship applications is March 16.

Amelia Heymann can be reached by email at aheymann@dailypress.com, or on twitter @HeymannAmelia.

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