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New movie 'Hidden Figures' resonates with local black women who pioneered in STEM fields

ST. PETERSBURG

Sandra Gibson's eyes welled.

During a special screening of the new movie Hidden Figures last week, her thoughts turned to moments in her own life. • In one scene, a teacher tells the parents of Katherine Johnson, a future NASA mathematician, that she has never seen a child so gifted. In another, a colleague of Johnson's smuggles a book about Fortran, the computer programming language, from a library because it wasn't available in the "colored" section.

The film — based on the true story of three black female mathematicians responsible for the calculations behind NASA's first successful space launches — is set during an era of mixed reaction to change. Computers were starting to replace human computation, but segregated restrooms still existed.

Gibson attended an early screening of Hidden Figures at Sundial for members of the St. Petersburg chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha — a sorority founded by black women in 1908. Among the sorority's members: Katherine Johnson and two other women, all NASA mathematicians, whose stories are told in the film.

The movie prompted Gibson, now a principal industrial engineer at Jabil, to reflect on her own struggles with learning Fortran and being a woman of color studying engineering in 1975.

She thought about how she'd never seen any women of color, or any women at all, working as engineers when she was in high school — and about the guidance counselor who helped her find an internship with General Motors. The opportunity made her realize she could be an engineer.

"I thought about all the times I almost gave up," Gibson said. "We've come a long, long way."

Manitia Moultrie, a senior environmental engineering manager at Golder Associates and the youth program director for Alpha Kappa Alpha, said the group hoped the screening would inspire younger girls and women of color, invited from the community, to embark on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — careers.

At a reception before the screening, the sorority honored 11 local members working in STEM.

Having these mentors visible, Moultrie said, is important. When she was growing up, she said, she was told math and science were for boys.

Moultrie posed a question to the sorority and community members in the theater: How many were students interested in pursuing STEM careers?

Six stood up.

She asked if they knew that only three out of 100 women who graduate with bachelor's degrees end up working in STEM fields 10 years after graduation. The theater fell silent.

"You don't have to be good at it," Moultrie said. "You don't have to be great at it. It's a challenge. Accept the challenge."

Dr. Marilyn Fudge, a sorority member and OB-GYN residency director at Bayfront Health, said many of the young women she tutors still say they can't do math.

"It's extremely important to have people who look like you," she said. "It instills that pride and confidence that they are capable."

Shauna Gilstrap McCallister, a product manufacturing engineer at Honeywell Aeronautics, who was part of designing the vehicle for NASA's Orion project, said the movie sends an important message to younger women.

"It gives so much highlight to what women have done for years," she said.

And though the "colored bathroom" signs and the barbed comments about women's roles may no longer exist as portrayed in the film, McCallister said today's workplace is nevertheless fraught with less blatant forms of racism and sexism.

A 2015 study from the University of California at Hastings, based on interviews with 557 women, found that 100 percent of women of color reported experiencing some kind of workplace bias.

To this day, Moultrie said, she's never worked with another woman of color. "It can be an isolated career path," she said.

McCallister said the sorority provides a sense of solidarity. While it may not be as dramatic as the moment in Hidden Figures when one mathematician refuses a promotion unless her entire team can be relocated, McCallister said a sense of mutual support does exist among minorities, even when it can be competitive.

"I think there's a sense that we're all in the same fight," she said.

Julia Burke, 24, an Alpha Kappa Alpha member who recently graduated with a master's degree in public health from Florida A&M University and hopes to start medical school soon, called the film inspirational.

"There are still challenges," she said. "But just because there are challenges, that shouldn't stop you from going after your dreams and goals and aspirations."

Contact Divya Kumar at dkumar@tampabay.com. Follow @divyadivyadivya.

New movie 'Hidden Figures' resonates with local black women who pioneered in STEM fields 01/11/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 11, 2017 12:02pm]
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