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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

African American Mathematicians: Katherine Johnson

            With the 2017 Oscars just around the corner, it seems fitting to dedicate this week’s African American History Month post to Katherine Johnson, one of the central characters in Hidden Figures. The Hollywood hit focuses on Katherine’s career at NASA, and her struggle to be recognized for her brilliant work in the field and not for her race, but as a child and thorough her life she always had the problem of racism over her head.
The 2017 story of Katherine's work on the Apollo Missions

Growing up in White Sulfur Springs, WV, Katherine was influenced by her mother, who was a teacher, and took to mathematics at a young age. She breezed through elementary and middle school, but didn’t have a local high school option in her county due to her race. Understanding her gift, Katherine’s parents enrolled her in a high school across the state and split time between Institute and White Sulfur Springs. Katherine would end up graduating high school at the age of fourteen, and would go on to West Virginia State College to continue her study of math.
            While in college, Katherine took every single math class that was offered, and grew close to several faculty members, who pushed to add more classes in order to fulfill Katherine’s desire to learn. At the age of eighteen, Katherine graduated at the top of her class and was accepted as one of the first African American students at West Virginia Universities’ graduate program.
Katherine Johnson when she was at NASA

At this point it seems fitting to talk about Katherine’s fantastic career at NASA and the NACA, but I will leave that story to be told by the movie Hidden Figures. Regardless, Katherine’s achievements are inspiring to many people across the world, and she continues to inspire aspiring mathematicians to this day.

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