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‘One Book’ author Shetterly shares lessons learned from the unsung heroes of NASA

The strength of their connection fueled their workplace success

The most inspirational lesson author Margot Lee Shetterly learned in writing her book “Hidden Figures” came from the father of NASA’s Katherine Johnson, who told his daughter, “You are no better than anyone else, and no one is better than you.”

That key advice helped inspire the African-American mathematicians and engineers in the book to achieve path-breaking successes at NASA at a time when America was mired in the struggle for civil rights. Furthermore, these protagonists had to overcome barriers of race and gender. 

Those lessons inspired members of the Northwestern community who gathered Oct. 17 on both the Chicago and Evanston campuses for the One Book One Northwestern event featuring Shetterly at a time when the University is marking 150 years since women could enroll as Northwestern undergraduate students.

The number one question Shetterly is asked about her bestselling book is “Why haven’t I heard of these women before?”

The women achieved those successes because they were confident they were as capable as anyone else. The book chronicling their story is proof that they were.

Shetterly’s book, “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” was selected for “One Book One Northwestern” for 2019-20 because the academic year also marks 150 years of women at Northwestern

The One Book programming, nearly 50 events in fall quarter alone, will be a catalyst for important conversations all year long about the women/womxn scholars that were catalysts for change at Northwestern and beyond.

Margot Lee Shetterly and Heather Pinkett. Photo by Ben Bomier

caption: One Book co-chair Heather Pinkett greets Shetterly at the Evanston keynote event.

The One Book committee is co-chaired by Heather Pinkett, associate professor in the department of molecular biosciences at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and Teresa Woodruff, associate provost for graduate education.

Earlier in the day, Woodruff welcomed the Thorne Auditorium crowd and conversed with the author in Chicago. “80 years after the first women students, Northwestern hired its first female faculty members. And they are the heels and shoulders on which we stand. They are hidden no more,” Woodruff said.

Pinkett moderated the Evanston campus conversation later that day for a packed house in the Ryan Family Auditorium. 

The NASA bubble

Growing up in Hampton, Virginia, the daughter of a scientist who worked at NASA with multiple African-American and female scientists, Shetterly saw women in STEM as the status quo. It was only after she’d grown up and moved away that she realized how unusual it was. 

Listening to her father and husband talking one day about Katherine Johnson and the other remarkable black women mathematicians, scientists and engineers he worked with at NASA, Shetterly, whose background is in finance and business, knew she had to tell the stories of these unseen women who helped tip the balance for the U.S. during the Space Race and the Cold War with the Soviet Union. 

Many firsts but never alone

Shetterly’s rigorous research started with Johnson, who was famous in her Hampton, Virginia, community for calculating the flight trajectories for Alan B. Shepard and John Glenn, the first American in space and the first to orbit the earth. 

“I knew the research had to be legit,” Shetterly said. “Dad and his peers took the work seriously, and I needed to understand it and do it justice.”

Johnson, who is now 101 years old, was a natural starting point for the project because Shetterly’s mother went to school with Johnson’s children. Johnson’s oral history of 1940’s NASA led to Dorothy Vaughn, “the smartest woman Johnson ever met” and the first African-American supervisor at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

The experience of researching the book, Shetterly said, “Was like turning on a light and seeing a room full of women at desks with slide rulers.”

In addition to oral histories from the community, Shetterly also relied on research reports, office memos and data sheets from NASA to fill in the stories of the central figures in the book. A scientist’s daughter, she loved the research phase of the book. As a novice writer, she had to learn to let the 50-year-old artifacts speak to her and to tell the story truthfully and in a way that would interest readers outside of the Langley community.

One of the biggest truths she uncovered was that these “human super computers” didn’t succeed alone. There is common approach in chronicling the lives of a remarkable person by photographing them alone and focusing solely on the individual’s origin story. And while women like Katherine Johnson were exceptional for their mathematical talent and courage in not taking “no” for an answer, “Hidden Figures” reveals the team nature of scientific and technological progress. Success is dependent on the work that came before it. “The story of the NASA human computers is so much more realistic than the story of the idealistic superhero,” Shetterly said.

“Someone to talk about thermodynamics with”

While racial and gender separation in the mid-20th century created obstacles for these women, they were fortunate to have a cohort of women doing the same work in the same place at the same time. And they got to share their vocational identity outside of the workplace and in their church and community. These multiple layers of connection contributed to their professional success. 

“Having someone to talk about thermodynamics with allows you to find people who share an interest with you that you can sit together with and get things done,” Shetterly said. 

When the best-selling book and Academy Award-nominated film that followed were released in 2016, Shetterly never expected the level of enthusiasm and ongoing impact of the book. She attributes this to the parallel challenges that exist in society 80 years later. Society today is primed for conversations about the underrepresentation of women in STEM, the role of technology in the economy and the different, and in some ways more complex, challenges women encounter in the workplace while balancing family life. 

The experience of researching and writing “Hidden Figures” gave Shetterly a sense of optimism. “I think it shows the success that comes from applying humanity to engineering and social problems.”

Shetterly’s Human Computer Project continues where “Hidden Figures” left off. The project is a digital record of the stories of women who worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center between the 1930s and 1980s. She hopes to both recover these unknown stories as well as create a data set for researchers and policy makers to understand the pathways to success to help women in the career pipeline today. 

One Book Essay Contest Winners

A complimentary “Hidden Figures” eBook was made available to all first-year Northwestern undergraduate and graduate students along with a free 6-month membership to Amazon Prime. First -year students were invited to submit a 1,000-word essay on a theme inspired by the book. First place winner Lutgardis Ineza Ukangutse was awarded $500 and dinner with the author at President Schapiro’s home for her essay, "Over the Moon." An honorable mention was given to Xanthe Brown for her essay, "Hidden: How Shetterly's Book Emboldens Our Quest to Uncover Subtle Forms of Oppression." Visit the One Book website to read their award-winning essays.

2019 essay winner with author ShetterlyWEB

caption: Shetterly with essay winner Lutgardis Ineza Ukangutse

150 Years of Women

Northwestern University marks the 150th anniversary of coeducation in 2019-20. To mark this historic anniversary, Northwestern will host events and programming across the University and around the world. Get to know the Northwestern women/womxn who led the struggle to open doors, creating greater access and opportunity for all who followed on the 150 Years of Women website.

One Book One Northwestern Events

Join the conversation about the unsung heroes who helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space. Upcoming events include:

  • “NASA Experience: from Sputnik to ISS to Mars”
    Oct. 23, at 5 p.m.
    Pancoe Auditorium
    2200 Campus Dr. on the Evanston campus

A discussion of NASA’s involvement at Northwestern with Neurobiology Professor Fred Turek. 

  • “Cartography of the Cosmos: Mapping the Unseen”
    Oct. 24, at 5:30 p.m.
    Cahn Auditorium
    600 Emerson St. on the Evanston campus

    A lecture by Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan on how mapping encodes radical new scientific ideas.

  • “Hidden Figures” screening
    Oct. 30, at 6:30 p.m.
    Norris Center’s McCormick Auditorium
    1999 Campus Drive on the Evanston campus

A free screening of the Academy Award-nominated motion picture based on Shetterly’s book.

The full calendar of events is available on the One Book website

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