In the 1960s, an important group of women known as “human computers” worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) by using mathematics and science to help make important missions possible. Those women were unknown to history for many years. That was until last year, when the film “Hidden Figures” was released, showcasing the work that these women did in the 1960s. Dr. Sandra K. Johnson said she had a similar story to the women portrayed in the “Hidden Figures” film at last Tuesday evening’s lecture.
In the Keene State College Alumni Center in front of a full audience, Johnson said she first became interested in mathematics at a young age when she was in school, but the thing that she said got her the most interested in mathematics and science was an offer she got while she was in high school.
Johnson said, “One day, I received a letter from an engineering summer institute for college students and for high school students to spend a summer on a college campus. This particular college was Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.”
She then said she decided to apply for the opportunity and was accepted. Johnson said that is when she fell in love with engineering and knew that it was what she was born to do.
Johnson then spoke about the way she was treated in graduate school as an African American.
“When I did go to grad school, I did get some pushback primarily from some students which was an issue because most of the work that we needed to do required you to work in groups, so I had some challenges there, but I did find some good groups to work with. Some of the professors during graduate school as well and some students made comments regarding how I look, but I had already spent four years as an undergraduate and I was a little older, more mature, wiser and knew how to handle it,” Johnson said.
After graduate school, Johnson went on to have a successful and professional career in engineering. Johnson said she worked for International Business Machines for over 26 years, worked on several major projects including creating over 40 issued and pending patents.
Johnson said, “I was on the design team that built this prototype machine that eventually became the machine the IBM Deep Blue Team used to defeat the world chess champion, so I was excited about that.” Johnson said that was one of her proudest accomplishments.
With Johnson’s personality throughout the evening while telling her story, she ended her lecture by saying, “One thing I love to share is to encourage and inspire people to, first of all, find their purpose and destiny, whatever it may be. For me, it was when I was in high school and ended up going to the engineering summer institute and knew this is what I was born to do. So find your purpose and destiny. You will know what it is when you find it and pursue that. That is when you are going to be the most successful and the happiest ever and there are some side effects to that, like better health mentally and physically.”
The audience had positive reactions to the speaker. Assistant Professor of Mathematics Karen Stanish said, “I thought that what she said was wonderful and inspirational. I enjoyed hearing about obstacles that she went through and how she overcame them.
One student, junior Emily McLaughlin said, “The presentation was very inspiring. I enjoyed her talking about her thoughts and going through school from her perspective.”
Associate Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion for the Diversity and Multiculturalism Office at KSC Dottie Morris said it is very important to have speakers such as Johnson here on campus. Morris said, “I thought that it was important to bring her in for a couple reasons. One, because she is quite an accomplished engineer as you heard from some of the things that she has done. I wanted people to hear, especially younger women, about her accomplishments. I asked her to talk about some of her role models so they can see that there has been a tradition of women in the science fields who are hidden from our, maybe, traditional books that we read. The second reason I wanted to bring her in was because she was an African American woman, so adding another dimension to that is important because I think a lot of African Americans are taught or led to believe that they’re incapable of being good at mathematics or science.”
Morris then said the following day in her class, several students mentioned that they felt inspired by the presentation that Johnson gave.
Colby Dubal can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org