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WVU event discusses legacy of Katherine Johnson

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson was an icon of endurance and resilience in the face of adversity, biases and restrictions.

While breaking barriers in space exploration, she was also breaking cultural boundaries. 

This and many other aspects of how Johnson’s life continues to be influential were discussed by panelists during WVU’s virtual event to celebrate Black History Month and to honor Johnson’s legacy. 

Panelists at the event included vice president for Division of Equity and Inclusion at WVU Mesha Poore and former NASA engineer and partner of Ventures Yonder Keri Knotts. Statler College professor Cerasela Zoica Dinu moderated the event.

“We have to have more discussions like this to make sure we are meeting each other where we are, but growing collectively as well,” Poore said. 

Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She was the first African-American female to attend West Virginia University and later graduated from West Virginia State University. 

She was a renowned mathematician well-known for helping in getting the first astronaut into orbit around the moon and on the moon. She died on Feb. 24, 2020, at age 101.

During the event, Poore and Knotts discussed the issues people of color and women continue to face in the workforce and the importance of education and STEM.

Limitations and Challenges in the Workforce

Poore and Knotts both said throughout their careers, there have been several times they were the only women in the room, much like Johnson experienced in her line of work. 

Poore said these instances for many can lead women or people of color in that position to feel they have to prove their worth, even if they are qualified to hold a position.

“I would be remiss in saying that that does not carry some level of weight and some level of trauma of having to always have to be better than the rest of the room,” Poore said. 

In her own experience, Knotts said showing up and doing the work she needs to do has been a method for overcoming biases women face in the STEM world. However, she said she recognizes and has experienced the limitations attempted to be placed on women.

Early on in her training at NASA, she said she remembers learning about the history of NASA. During her training, she said Johnson’s work was not mentioned.

“It mostly involved the figurehead astronaut crews from way back when, so the white men,” Knotts said.

Poore said Johnson’s legacy shows how history can be lost or buried. She said much of the work Johnson did was not celebrated to the extent it is today until much later in Johnson’s life. 

“When we think about Katherine Johnson’s life, she faced discrimination,” Poore said. “There was racism, discrimintation that was placed on her … that was attempting to stop her from being able to get the education that she was worthy of. She did not allow that to stop her.”

Knotts said in recognizing how Johnson’s story wasn’t initially told, she feels there are many others who could make a difference in the world that are being overlooked in the same way.

“How many people are we missing out on? How many people like Katherine are out there that are being overlooked,” Knotts said. “I think that’s part of the conversation and part of the message I hope to get out here is we need to find them.”

Importance of Science and Engineering

Poore said everything we do involves science and engineering in some way, from makeup to the use of technology like Zoom to the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We couldn’t do what we need to do for this country without scientists and engineers,” Poore said.

Knotts said for those reconsidering being involved in STEM or questioning if they should get involved in the field, it does not take a math or science prodigy to make a difference in the world like Johnson did.

When Knotts first went to college, she was determined to become a lawyer and started off as a journalism major. Towards the end of her college career, she began to recognize her love for space and decided to switch to an engineering major.

“I certainly was not a math genius, and I feel like I have contributed to human space flight in a really neat way,” Knotts said. 

Knotts said she hopes people who are potentially interested in the field will recognize not only benefits the industry has on society, but also the impact it has on an individual person. 

“It teaches you to think analytically, to reason through things, to solve problems, and not just problems in the work field but problems in general,” Knotts said.