Science, math heroines are hidden no more

Scientists, educators and advocates for women from four dozen countries recently came to the U.S. to meet American scientists as part of a program that owes its raison d’être to a hit movie.

Hidden Figures — a box-office hit that earned multiple Academy Award nominations with its inspiring story of unsung female, African-American math whizzes who overcame discrimination to help get the U.S. space program off the ground — now also refers to this group of 48 guests of the U.S. Department of State.

The guests, all women, came thanks to the International Visitor Leadership Program. Their exchange, called “#HiddenNoMore: Empowering Women Leaders in STEM,” allowed the visitors to sit down with female leaders from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Institutes of Health and other science agencies.

The group even attended a screening of Hidden Figures at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society in Washington, before journeying across the country.

The three-week visit wound up October 27 in Los Angeles. The visitors got to meet the Hidden Figures movie’s producers and confer with female scientists and engineers from UCLA, SpaceX and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.

New mentors helped the visitors to hone strategies for helping others in their own countries to overcome obstacles and attitudes that discourage women from pursuing careers in science, technology, math and engineering (fields known as STEM).

At the National Academy of Sciences, participants spoke about mentors they have had and their own obligation to encourage the talents of a next generation.

“The main problem is the mindset,” says Jennifer Vania, an engineer from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, who founded two nonprofits that engage youths in robotics and spark interest in STEM. “We have opportunities to work but don’t have a lot of girls and women in STEM areas. They prefer degrees in teaching or administration.”

Afaf Bugawa, assistant professor of information technology at Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain, says, “We want to encourage interest in STEM from a younger age. Education is saturated. They have to go into different careers.”

Movie scene featuring people in office looking at large blackboard (© Hopper Stone/Twentieth Century Fox)
NASA named a building for Katherine Johnson (here played by Taraji Henson). (© Hopper Stone/Twentieth Century Fox)

Biochemist Shahlo Turdikulova, deputy director of the Institute of Bio-Organic Chemistry at the Academy of Sciences in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, says excellent mentors — her parents were both mathematicians — helped her. Today, with scientists routinely collaborating across borders, “a mentor could be anyone, anywhere in the whole world,” she says.

Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan urged them to share their experiences with girls and young women back home “who might never dream that there is a place for them in STEM. Each of you is living proof of the fact that there is.”

Learn more about the original Hidden Figures.