You are here

Invited Paper Session Abstracts - African American Women and the Mathematics of Flight

Please note: all sessions are listed in Mountain Daylight Time (MDT = UTC-6:00)

Wednesday, August 4, 1:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.

The 2016 book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” featured stories about African American women who worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from the 1930s through the 1960s. Several of these women were mathematicians: Katherine Johnson worked out the orbital mechanics of John Glenn’s orbit of the Earth in 1962; and Dr. Christine Darden revolutionized aerodynamics design to produce low-boom sonic effects in the 1970’s. Indeed, Katherine Johnson earned a BS in mathematics in 1937 and Dr. Christine Darden earned a MS in Mathematics in 1967. In this session, we will feature the mathematics of pioneers in flight such as Katherine Johnson Christine Darden; and we will discuss the history of African American women who have worked in the aeronautical industry.

Edray Goins, Pomona College
Christine Darden, Retired from NASA Langley Research Center

Highlighting the Hidden Legacy of Eunice Gray Smith

1:00 p.m. - 1:20 p.m.
Ranthony A.C. Edmonds, Ohio State University


The Hidden Figures text by Margot Shetterly highlights the incredible stories of the African American women mathematicians who played a pivotal role in the development of the United States’ early aeronautics and space programs. As a result of this text and the major motion picture that it inspired, several of the protagonists of the story, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, are now household names. In this talk, we focus on the life and mathematical contributions of Eunice Gray Smith, a character in the text whose story has been somewhat hidden amongst the Hidden Figures.

Eunice Smith worked at Langley Research Center for 40 years. She began her career in 1944 as one of the first human computers to work in Langley’s segregated West Computing group, and ended it as a part of the ground loads engineering team, where she focused on various aspects of aircraft design, testing, and performance. Though she finished her career with six co-authored technical reports, there are no existing personnel records of the beginning of her tenure with the agency. In fact, it is only through oral histories from coworkers, like her close friend Katherine Johnson, that Smith’s story has been pieced together. Here, we bring the mathematical ideas behind her research to the forefront.


Women in NASA Aeronautics

1:30 p.m. - 1:50 p.m.
Michelle Ferebee, NASA Langley Research Center


Women from diverse cultural and educational backgrounds who play vital roles and contribute to NASA’s Aeronautics mission will be featured. After a brief overview highlighting important female figures in NASA’s rich history, Ms. Ferebee will discuss NASA’s Aeronautics mission as well as skills that are needed to achieve NASA’s Aeronautics mission goals. She will also share her career path.


Value of Applied Mathematics For Aviation Research

2:00 p.m. - 2:20 p.m.
Tasha R. Inniss, Spelman College


As a member of the National Center of Excellence for Aviation Operations Research and a consultant for the Federal Aviation Administration in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I worked to understand the impact of inclement weather conditions on the landing capacity at airports in the United States. My research required data mining techniques, integer programming, and applied statistics. I focused on the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and the morning fog conditions. In this talk, I will share the trajectory of this research, which led to the development of stochastic models for airport arrival rates at SFO.


STEM Stars! The Celebrity of Women Role Models in the Aeronautical Industry

2:30 p.m. - 2:50 p.m.
Shelly M. Jones, Central Connecticut State University


The 2016 book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” brought to light these historical accomplishments; however, the movie brought the bright lights of stardom. It is necessary for us to continue this momentum of stardom for other extraordinary Black women in STEM. I will begin by telling the stories of two Black pioneers at NASA, Annie Easley, a Human Computer and Computer Programmer and Jeanette Scissum, the first African American female mathematician and scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. The story continues with Astronaut and Aerospace Engineer Dr. Jeanette J. Epps who says her Super Power is inspiring the next generation of girls. She does this by engaging with young people in the classroom and on social media. We can all agree that seeing her in a space suit is cool! You will also hear about the journey of Shania Sanders at NASA starting as an intern and eventually being hired as a Computer Programmer at the Langley Research Center. It is important to hear these stories but even more important to provide a platform for these stars to shine. How else will our young people be inspired!


The Mathematical Story of a "Hidden Figure", Katherine Johnson (August 26, 1918 - February 24, 2020)

3:00 p.m. - 3:20 p.m.
Talitha Washington, Clark Atlanta University and Atlanta University Center


In 1961, Katherine Johnson used mathematics to make it possible for John Glenn to become the first American to orbit the Earth. In 2017, the Hollywood movie "Hidden Figures" revealed how Johnson broke racial barriers through her distinguished 33 year career in NASA's Flight Research Division. Talitha Washington tells the unforgettable mathematical story of Katherine Johnson and how she moves us all to excel to be among the stars.


Dorothy Hoover: The Journey of a Hidden Figure from Arkansas to NASA

3:30 p.m. - 3:50 p.m.
Kimberly S. Weems, North Carolina Central University


This talk highlights the remarkable life and accomplishments of Dorothy E. McFadden Hoover, an African-American mathematician who contributed to the field of aeronautics. During a time of significant barriers for Blacks and women, Hoover earned two master’s degrees, co-authored at least four technical papers, and achieved the senior rank of GS-13 mathematician while working at NASA Goddard. Her exceptional mathematical ability is discussed in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book “Hidden Figures.” Drawing from Shetterly’s work, this presentation takes a closer look at Hoover’s scholarship and is based on a collaboration with Lily Khadjavi, Tanya Moore, and Ulrica Wilson.