The innovation and ingenuity that led the United States into space is well documented. The stories of the people involved in that process are often overlooked.
Margot Lee Shetterly sheds light on the true story of the “human computers” who used math to change their own lives and their country’s future in her book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.”
Shetterly will explore the need for more diversity in science, technology, engineering and math in a keynote speech sponsored by the College of Engineering as part of the University of Michigan’s annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium. She also will talk about the ways women and people of color have contributed to American innovation.
The speech will take place 4-5:30 p.m. Jan. 24 in Rackham Auditorium. The keynote address will be followed by a 6:30 p.m. fireside chat at Stamps Auditorium on North Campus and a 7:15 p.m. book signing, also at Stamps Auditorium on North Campus.
Shetterly’s book has been made into a film, which will be released Jan. 6. The film stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst and Kevin Costner. It tells the life stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, who worked as mathematicians at NASA during the golden age of space travel.
The four black women taught math at segregated schools in the South before being called into service during the WWII labor shortages. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had jobs worthy of their skills at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia.
Even as Jim Crow laws segregated them from their white counterparts, the women of this all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. They were among hundreds of black and white women who, over the decades, contributed to some of NASA’s greatest successes.
Additionally, Shetterly’s father was among the early generation of black NASA engineers and scientists, and she had direct access to NASA executives and the women featured in the book.
She grew up around the historically black Hampton College, where the women in “Hidden Figures” studied. She graduated from the University of Virginia and is a 2014 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow.