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To the Moon and Back | Remembering Famed Mathematician Katherine Johnson
Last week, I spent time paying respect to the trailblazing NASA female mathematician who had accomplished her purpose on this earth before I had the chance to meet her.
Portrayed in the best-selling book and Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson is best known for developing equations that sent astronauts into orbit, and later, to the moon. Katherine passed away at 101 in Newport News, VA, in February.
I can only envision what it would have been like to enjoy a latte with Katherine, reliving stories of her career, and even asking for advice on my own life and career. If I had been able to enjoy just one conversation with her, I can’t help but wonder what she would have taught me about the hurdles she faced—and what she would have said about the hurdles women have to scale in our careers today.
Since I live in the Boston area, I imagine my coffee date with Katherine Johnson would have been in some quiet university coffeehouse with bookcases all around. She would retell her story by first giving her parents credit for fostering her incredible potential. After all, her father, Joshua, was educated only through the sixth grade, but when Katherine finished eighth grade at the age of 10, he arranged for her family to live 120 miles away for the school year, just so she could pursue a high school education.
Katherine’s (recognized) confidence seems to have germinated from her parents’ early confidence in her, which, thank goodness, took root deep in her soul so that she could rise above daily micro-inequities and overt racial and gender bias.
Imagine being a 14-year-old girl graduating from high school, daring to start a college degree in mathematics. Imagine graduating from college in 1937—during the tail end of the Great Depression—at just 18 years old. She was bold. She was tenacious. And she stared down the countless faces of doubt, negativity, and bias that could have paralyzed her path forward. Her advice to others reveals her deep belief in worthiness: “Do your best at all times. That’s the best you can do.”
Thanks to a powerful network of influential professors, family members, and trusted female colleagues, Katherine discovered her unique value. What’s more, she used it to “make the ask,” even when the deck was stacked so high against her that it was nearly impossible to expect a “yes” in return.
I imagine her retelling me stories from her time at NACA and NASA, including one scenario when a superior said that she could not accompany male colleagues to a briefing related to her work. Johnson asked, “Is there a law that says I can’t go?” Her boss relented.
It seems that Katherine was well aware of her skill set and leveraged it to build connections with the white men around her. As Wall Street legend, author, and singer Carla Harris would say, Katherine knew how to “move from performance currency into relationship currency.” Such an incredible feat, and what a wise woman.
She was no stranger to discrimination, micro-inequities, or injustice, and what I find compelling is her response to it. She seemed to carry on in the face of bias—steady, confident, and (as much as humanly possible) served a higher purpose from her Compassionate Center. She spoke the truth—and maintained respect for those around her. One of her most-quoted sayings is “I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.”
As we end our imaginary coffee date, I imagine that Katherine would ask me if there was anything she could do for me: “I’d do anything for anyone,” she would remind me with a smile. I envision Katherine would encourage me to take risks in my career, to be bold, assertive, and to know my value. And equally, she would prompt me to be modest, respectful, and diligent in every endeavor.
“Girls are capable of doing everything men are capable of doing,” Katherine once said. “Sometimes they have more imagination than men.”
If my imaginary coffee with Katherine is any indication, then perhaps I’m just as capable of helping others get to the moon and back, too.
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