If I could have dinner with a historical figure, who would it be?
I am passionate about equality for all, and I have always been fascinated by space travel. During dinner with NASA mathematician and scientist Katherine Johnson, I would combine these areas to see the advances and setbacks we have made through the eyes of someone with a comprehensive knowledge of both. Working at NASA in the 1950s, Katherine Johnson experienced first-hand the paradox of being brilliant, but treated as an inferior because of her race and gender. In a time when careers in the sciences were scarce for women, the field was even less accessible to women of color. Born in 1918, this amazing woman who changed the course of our space program, died at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. I would ask her opinion as to why it appears that confidence in science today has decreased since she made her invaluable contributions to the future of space exploration.
I would ask Katherine if she ever thought that her razor- sharp mind had been detrimental to her social development. We learn invaluable social skills during our high school years. As a senior, I am aware that inclusion and camaraderie are imperative for high school survival. Katherine started high school when she was 10 years old and graduated from college at 18. She wasn’t able to experience parties, dances, boyfriends, or even girlfriends her age. She continued to experience polarizing segregation by being the only African American woman permitted to attend graduate school at West Virginia University. I would want to know if she viewed her accelerated education and lost childhood as foreshadowing of the isolation she would experience as a NASA scientist.
I would ask how Katherine withstood the emotional torment of segregated offices, bathrooms, and dining areas at NASA. I would question her about the frustration she had towards supervisors who minimized her abilities, although their own scientific skills paled in comparison. In her years of working as an aerospace technologist, did she ever want to do more than facilitate space travel for others? Or did she want to actually travel the trajectory she calculated for the first man on the Moon? Did she want to accurately determine her own location in space by using the observation system she created, or was she deprived of these opportunities because space travel was a journey only taken by men?
Most significantly I would value her opinion on the current status of women working in science. Would she agree that these careers were now free from bias, or are the advances we have made still glaringly deficient? I would discuss whether young women today are provided with enough encouragement to follow their science dreams, and if the STEM program was adequate incentive. Through my conversation with Katherine Johnson, I believe I would be even more motivated to pursue a career in science and continue the work that this inspirational woman began.