ERN Conference Brings Past and Present “Hidden Figures” to Light


Christine Darden, Margot Lee Shetterly, Robert Benjamin Lee and Kelly Mack discuss "Hidden Figures" at the Emerging Researchers National Conference. | Michael Colella

Each year on the final night of the Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference in STEM, about 30 Ph.D.-level scientists and engineers who attended historically black colleges and universities as undergraduates line up on stage to introduce themselves and describe their current work. Seeing them, and hearing about their impressive achievements, often has a strong impact on current students, who may lack minority role models in STEM.

"It's inspiring and hopeful to hear so many say 'I was the first black Ph.D. to graduate in (blank) from (blank),'" one attendee tweeted from the conference, held 2-4 March in Washington, D.C.

Hearing the stories of African-American women who worked as "human computers" at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, as revealed in the book Hidden Figures and the subsequent hit movie, has had a similar effect. The book's author, Margot Lee Shetterly, was part of a special panel at the conference.

"Thank you for giving us this story back," the panel's moderator, Kelly Mack, told Shetterly. Mack, vice president for undergraduate STEM education at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, led a discussion with Shetterly, Shetterly's father Robert Benjamin Lee, a retired Langley climate scientist, and Christine Darden, a former Langley aerospace engineer and one of the women profiled in Hidden Figures.

Darden authored more than 57 papers on high-speed aerodynamics and sonic boom research during her 40-year career, and was the first African-American woman at Langley to be promoted to the senior executive service. She began working as a computer at Langley in 1967, almost a decade after the campus was desegregated by NASA. Unlike some of the characters profiled in the movie, she said she didn't experience much overt racism.

However, after years of working as a computer, she wanted to move into an engineering group. She asked her supervisor for a transfer and for permission to attend graduate school at NASA, but was denied. Darden later asked a more senior supervisor if men with math backgrounds could work in engineering groups, why couldn't women?

"He said it had never been asked before," she said, and he approved the transfer, making her one of the first black women in an engineering group.

"It was a changing point in my career," Darden recalled. "I was promoted, and [for] my first assignment I was given a paper of partial differential equations and told to develop a computer code to solve them to use for sonic boom research … I wrote the code, then we went on to design models, and went into a wind tunnel to test them. Within a year, I was here in D.C. giving a paper on the code that I wrote. My 25-year career in sonic boom minimization kind of took off from there."

That kind of persistence was something she saw from all the women she profiled, Shetterly said, and is still good advice today. "Don't stop asking" for what you want, she said. "Sometimes a 'no' is the first step to a 'yes'."

The 2017 ERN conference, hosted by AAAS and the National Science Foundation, had 1100 attendees from 251 institutions. It gives undergraduate and graduate students a venue to communicate their research and develop their careers with the goal of broadening participation in the STEM fields to include groups that are historically underrepresented, including minorities, women and persons with disabilities.

Nearly 700 undergraduate and graduate students presented research posters or gave oral presentations, which were judged and critiqued by 136 specialist judges. Cash prizes were awarded to the three best presentations in biological sciences, chemistry and chemical sciences, ecology, environmental and earth sciences and technology and engineering. Participants also attended workshops and panels aimed at developing science career management and communication skills, with topics such as funding a STEM education, giving oral presentations and choosing a career in STEM.

Speaking about the impact that the conference has had during the seven-year collaboration between AAAS and NSF, Malcom said, "I had students come up to me and offer totally unsolicited remarks about what the experience meant to them, most to thank us for arranging this conference. The speakers had lines of students waiting to talk with them, and they graciously stayed and spoke with them all. For some students it was their first time on a plane, never mind that it was, for many, their first time presenting at any scientific meeting."

Post-conference evaluations by the students indicate that the conference often inspires undergraduates to pursue graduate studies in the sciences, said AAAS Program Director Yolanda George, who has organized all seven conferences. "Students also find out about summer research opportunities, and meet faculty and staff from graduate schools that they are interested in applying to, or they find out about financial opportunities," said George.

Iris Wagstaff, a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow who attended the conference, said the Hidden Figures panel was inspiring. "It makes us think about how many more 'hidden figures' there are in our own history," she said, "because we don't learn about it in our schools. It's left to us to teach the next generation [about them]."

Wagstaff said it was also inspiring to hear from Shetterly and her father, who helped make being a black scientist seem like nothing out of the ordinary during Shetterly's childhood. "She didn't have to be a scientist, but she knew she had the option," Wagstaff said.