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'Hidden Figures' shines light on black women in STEM

| Judy Berthiaume

As she watched the inspirational drama “Hidden Figures,” Dr. Dandrielle Lewis could easily see herself in the black female mathematicians whose stories were finally being shared decades after their behind-the-scenes work helped make America’s celebrated space program a success.

After all, the UW-Eau Claire associate professor of mathematics knows all too well what it’s like to be a black woman trying to find her place in the white and male dominated STEM fields.

“As I watched the movie, I was inspired, motivated and emotional,” Lewis says. “I read about women and underrepresented groups in STEM a lot because I’m passionate about that topic, but it was different for me as I watched the movie because I felt like I connected with them. Their journeys could have easily been my own; they paved the way in math for black women like me.”

Even more importantly, she says, the movie — a box office hit that’s picking up a number of award nominations — is shining a light on black females who have a talent for and an interest in the computer, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

“They showed the world we exist,” Lewis says of black women who are contemplating or pursuing STEM careers.

The movie, set against the backdrop of the 1960s Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, tells the true story of the intelligent and determined African-American women mathematicians who were part of a group of workers known at NASA as “human computers.”

The movie follows Katherine Goble (later Johnson), Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, three female “colored computers,” as they were known, as they support a struggling American aeronautics industry during a time when sexism and racism were the norm.

The women had to use “colored” bathrooms and they horrified their white co-workers by pouring their coffee from a shared pot, yet it was their mathematical calculations and mastery of NASA’s first computer system that helped the United States launch its first rockets — and astronauts — into space.

Still, despite the crucial roles they played in the American space program, unlike American space heroes John Glenn or Neil Armstrong, their stories have never been widely known or shared until now.

Hopefully, Lewis says, having their stories told in this movie will help people realize that success in the STEM fields is not nor has it ever been defined by race or gender.

“Black women in STEM can do research and are just as good in their fields as white men and women,” Lewis says of the messages she hopes people take from the movie. “A solution to a problem or research question knows no color — we are the only ones who recognize color.”

While she loved the entire movie, one of the “Hidden Figures” storylines that moved Lewis most was Dorothy Vaughan’s actions after learning that NASA’s new computer would replace the “human computers,” eliminating her job and those of hundreds of other black women who worked for NASA.

In the movie, Vaughan takes her young sons to the library to look for a book on Fortran, a programming language that tells computers to calculate complicated mathematical problems. She’s told to leave because she’s black, but she sneaks the Fortran book out of the library.

After using the book to teach herself Fortran, she teaches other black “human computers” how to do programming and use Fortran. She also fixes NASA’s newly acquired computer, which has stumped the white men charged with building and operating it.

“There are so many parts of her story that are relevant today in 2017,” Lewis says of Vaughan, who was repeatedly passed over for promotions despite excelling in her work at NASA. “Although we do not have to steal books, we still have to fight as hard to be recognized and respected intellectually.

“It’s sad because in some settings where we should be sharing and exchanging knowledge and ideas, we still have to ‘prove’ to other people that we belong in that setting and we have to ‘prove’ our knowledge.”

Lewis hopes “Hidden Figures” will help convince more women and people from underrepresented populations that they can find success in the STEM fields.

“There are always battles to fight, but there are always many successes to be achieved,” Lewis says of the a key message she hopes black females in particular take from the movie. “Do not let anyone tell you that you cannot do math or be successful in STEM.

“Although you may not see many black women doing math, we exist, and we are happy to share our stories with you to make sure you know there is a support system and mentoring network in place to help you through.”

Like the real-life Katherine Goble, Lewis discovered her talent and passion for math at an early age, and she, too, was fortunate to have family and teachers who encouraged and supported her.

“I fell in love with math when I was in high school,” Lewis says. “I took calculus with Mrs. Anna Barnhill, and she made learning the concepts fun and exciting. We did exciting applications with derivatives and integrals, and we learned how to prove certain identities were true.

“It was in this class that math became interesting to me, and I knew I wanted to pursue it.”

Math always has provided her with a much-needed outlet, Lewis says.

“It was the one thing that I knew would not change if I performed the correct operations in the correct way,” Lewis says. “It would always give me a good answer if I pursued it. I just had to figure out how to solve the problems, and that was the enticing part — and still is.

“I get to come up with solutions to questions. It’s like a beautiful puzzle.”

Recognizing her talent and nurturing her interests in mathematics, Lewis’ teachers encouraged her to apply for internships, which led her to the Quality Education for Minorities network.

Through that network, she was able to spend one summer during high school doing research at Clark Atlanta University, an internship that included a visit to NASA, a memory that made the “Hidden Figures” movie that much more interesting.

Lewis spent a second summer of high school at San Francisco State University, and during college she had a summer internship at the National Science Foundation.

It was these combined experiences that convinced her that she could pursue mathematics as a career.

“Hidden Figures” is a powerful movie because women of color rarely have opportunities to see people like them being successful in the STEM fields, Lewis says.

For example, many universities, including some of the nation’s most prestigious schools that are known for their research, don’t have black women — or even black men — among their STEM faculty, Lewis says, noting that at UW-Eau Claire she was the first black woman to be part of the mathematics faculty. Currently, she is one of two black female mathematics faculty members at UW-Eau Claire.

“This is my reality every day when I look at past faculty pictures on a wall of my department,” Lewis says. “There is no one there that looks like me. There have been white women and men, so my colleagues can at least see people who look like them, despite gender.

“The question then becomes what are we, as individuals, in academia or industry, doing to change these walls? We have to do something, but we have to be open and ready to embrace the change.”

To make that change happen, Lewis says a strong mentoring network and support system must be in place.

“My family and my faith inspired me to pursue my education, and their support got me through graduate school because there were times when I questioned if getting that degree was really for me,” Lewis says. “They constantly reminded me — and they still do — of who I am, where I am from, and why it is that I do what I do.”

Her mentors, including QEM founder Dr. Shirley McBay, exposed her to black people who had doctorates in many STEM fields.

“Dr. McBay’s story alone is phenomenal and she is one bad — meaning very good — black mathematician,” Lewis says. “Being trained by her during my internships taught me the importance of why I am needed in my field, taught me how to communicate with others professionally no matter their skin color, how to plan strategically with short-term and long-term goals, and how important networking is.

“My passion to be the best at what I do, coupled with my faith and a strong and excellent mentoring network made up of people from all walks of life, family, friends, mentors at NASA and mentors at the National Science Foundation, got me to where I am today. Their support is everything to me because I am so much more than just a mathematician, and they see me for who I am as a whole.”

Mindful of the impact her mentors and her internships had on her life, Lewis is determined to create opportunities and experiences that will bring future generations of women and underrepresented groups into STEM.

Among her initiatives is UW-Eau Claire’s Sonia Kovalevsky Day, a special math day designed for high school and middle school girls.

During SK Day, girls learn about underrepresented women who use math in academia and industry.

The day also includes fun activities, with a goal of showing the girls that “math is fun, hands-on, engaging, exciting and full of endless possibilities,” Lewis says.

“We help them see that if you think of something, you can create it, design it, develop it or become it,” Lewis says. “We put women in front of them that they would normally not see in front of a classroom in Eau Claire, and we show them they can achieve this.

“We get these young girls to look beyond one’s skin color; we get them to see math.”

As the "Hidden Figures" stories show, making change isn’t always easy or comfortable, Lewis says.

Often at conferences, in classes and at meetings she is the only black woman or black person in the room.

“Sometimes it’s awkward, but then I realized that I belong in that space, and if I have to be the person that opens doors for the next black woman or black person to follow that’s OK because that was my purpose at that moment in time,” Lewis says.

She encourages everyone to be aware of the atmosphere you create for people, and to be open to change, she says.

Her hope is that the powerful stories shared in “Hidden Figures” will inspire others as they did her.

“Know your worth,” Lewis says of what she took from the movie. “Embrace who you are, and your passions and your purpose. Be confident in what you know, and if you don’t know, always be open to learning so you’ll know the next time around.

“Women in STEM is a movement, and this movie inspires people, not just women, to become advocates of change in STEM whether they are in STEM or not. It’s bigger than women only.”