She just asked

Former NASA researcher and executive Christine Darden deliver the opening keynote at the Advanced Technological Education Principal Investigators Conference.

As she did throughout her career as a NASA researcher and executive, Christine Darden took the time to talk informally with students at the 2018 Advanced Technological Education Principal Investigators Conference.

Darden and the other black female mathematicians featured in the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space War worked early in her career as a high school teacher because it was one of the few jobs available to women of color with college educations.

Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly noted that while working long hours at NASA, pursuing advanced degrees and raising their own families, the women continued to teach informally by volunteering with Girl Scouts and other community and church organizations to encourage girls to pursue careers in science and math.

The principles of P4

At the opening plenary at the ATE Principal Investigators Conference this week in Washington, D.C., Darden explained how she found her passion for applying math to explain scientific phenomena and key interactions in her career.

She uses the mathematical notation P4 as shorthand for her career success formula:

  • Perceive the career you would like to have.
  • Plan how to attain it.
  • Prepare for it.
  • Persist despite difficulties and discouraging words.

Darden was hired by NASA in 1967, one of the second generation of black women who broke barriers rising through the ranks at the agency in the years after the pioneers featured in the Hidden Figures movie.

In the book, Shetterly explained that recognizing the “full complement of extraordinary ordinary women who contributed to the success of NASA, we can change our understanding of their abilities from the exception to the rule.”

Shetterly pointed out that the goal of the black women mathematicians at NASA “wasn’t to stand out because of their differences; it was to fit in because of their talent.”

Daring to ask

During her presentation that the conference, Darden explained her research to reduce the sonic boom of planes that travel as supersonic speeds, and recounted the risk she took when she asked a NASA supervisor why female mathematicians were hired as data analysts and men with similar education and skills were placed in research jobs that made it possible for them to write scientific papers that were necessary for promotion.

He told her no one had ever questioned that practice. Three weeks after that conversation she was promoted and moved into a lab where she could work on questions involving supersonic flight.

Darden’s research resulted in the long, slender nose and wings of the QueSST prototype plane, which when tested over the Mojave Desert had a significantly quieter sound signature, and is considered foundational for current supersonic plane developments.

Related ATE conference story: Supporters of the Advanced Technological Education program reflect on its 25 years and look toward the future.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
is an education writer based in Ohio.