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Sarah E. Brown 2019

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Tribute to Katherine Johnson

Photo credit NASA/David C. Bowman

Katherine Johnson was a pioneering mathematician who worked for NASA. She was instrumental in doing the calculations for the Gemini and Apollo programs and being part of the introduction of computers to NASA. Her story was told in the 2017 film “Hidden Figures.” In preparation for one of his flights, John Glenn requested that she personally double check every calculation done by the computers, which she did. See “The Legacy of a Hidden Figure.”

I admire her as a gifted and dedicated mathematician. But I also admire how she overcame a lot of stereotypical barriers to do what she did. Katherine Johnson was a black female in the segregated South.

It had to be difficult and demeaning to work at NASA in those days. There is one scene in the film “Hidden Figures,” which I think symbolized this. She is seen running across a parking lot in the rain to go to the “colored” washroom. I could so identify with that because in my first job there were no female bathrooms where I worked, and I had to “run” elsewhere as well.

But Katherine Johnson was dealing with the double whammy of being both black and female. And what makes her extraordinary is that she apparently did not show anger or make others wrong in the process. She did her work and made her mark with persistence, humility, and by doing her job extraordinarily well, as exemplified by the confidence astronauts like John Glenn had in her work.

In one memorable story about her, she recounts that she was not “invited” to meetings of the engineers with whom she was working. So she ASKED to go. She kept hearing back that the “girls” did not go to these meetings. She replied, “Is there a law against it?” And she just kept asking until she was allowed to go.

In the interviews she did leading up to and following receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she humbly says she was just lucky and that she was just doing her job. She goes on to share what a joy her job was.

Her advice to others: “Always do your best, but like it…If you like it, you will do your best.”

Katherine Johnson died February 24, 2020 at the age of 101. May her spirit of courage, humbleness, dedication, and persistence never leave us but rather always inspire all of us to find the work we most love and do it to the best of our abilities.

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