NASA engineer’s talk at Sweet Briar sheds light on true story behind ‘Hidden Figures’

Christine Darden podium
Christine Darden speaking at Sweet Briar College on Feb. 22

Perhaps the most surprising fact about Christine Darden’s career isn’t that she had a weak background in math, or that she learned how to change oil as a child, but that she doesn’t remember feeling discriminated against because of her race or gender when NASA first hired her as a data analyst in 1967.

“Maybe I just didn’t pay attention to it,” she told the crowd of more than 300 guests in Sweet Briar College’s Upchurch Field House on Thursday night. It was the third time the College hosted the region’s National Engineers Week Banquet, attracting not just Sweet Briar students, faculty, staff and alumnae, but many area engineers, college students and local high school girls.

Darden, of course, has the résumé to summon almost any-size audience: Her 40-year career at NASA, beginning with five years as a “human computer,” included 25 years of groundbreaking work designing supersonic airplanes and decreasing the levels of sonic boom. But it wasn’t until Margot Lee Shetterly wrote about Darden in her best-selling book “Hidden Figures” — which was simultaneously turned into an Oscar-nominated movie — that her accomplishments became mainstream knowledge.

Banquet crowd
More than 300 guests attended Sweet Briar’s 2018 National Engineers Week Banquet.

Darden isn’t featured in the film because it focuses on the years 1961 and 1962, when she was still in college. The film’s heroines —Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson — were several years ahead of Darden, but they worked together later. “I was portrayed in the book as standing on their shoulders, and that’s true,” she said. “The fact that they did good work meant that NASA continued to hire, and they hired me.”

Vaughan and Jackson died in 2008 and 2005, respectively, and Johnson will celebrate her 100th birthday this year. That leaves Darden to travel the country and speak about the story behind the famous movie — which she likes, she says, despite some factual liberties taken by the screenwriter. “I just saw it for the thirteenth time the night before last,” she said during media interviews yesterday morning.

Darden and Johnson have kept in touch over the years. “We went to the same church in Washington for 50 years,” said Darden, who now lives in Hampton. With three daughters and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Darden can look back on a full life that often required compromises. She wasn’t able to accept every promotion because sometimes, it wasn’t the right time for her family. But, she says, “You have to be ready when the opportunity presents itself.”

Clara Rogers at banquet
Engineering major Clara Rogers ’20 listens as Darden describes her career path to NASA.

And Darden always was — no matter how difficult it seemed. When you have a dream, she told the audience, you have to perceive of yourself as that person. Hers wasn’t a straight or easy path: Geometry was the highest-level math class offered at her high school back home in North Carolina. It wasn’t much, but that’s when Darden knew she wanted to be a mathematician. “I fell in love with applied mathematics,” she recalled. The class triggered her lifelong fascination with the connection between math and our physical universe. “That’s where my passion lies,” she said.

After following her older brothers and sisters through high school, she decided it was time to forge her own path. She applied to Hampton University, then known as Hampton Institute, and enrolled with a scholarship. Her father had urged her to earn a teaching certificate because he wasn’t so sure she’d be able to find work as a black mathematician. Darden obeyed, but she never abandoned her dream, adding 24 credit hours of high-level math to prepare her for the day opportunity would knock on her door.

Born in 1942 as Christine Mann, Darden had always been naturally ambitious and curious about the world around her. Her mother, she says, gave her a talking doll when she was 5: “I cut it open to figure out why she talked.” Darden also spent lots of time working on the family’s car with her father. “I’d rather be outside playing with the boys than inside with my doll,” she said. “I wanted to skate and ride my bike.” Having soaked up all she could when her mother, who was a school teacher, brought her to school with her at the age of 3, Darden started kindergarten when she was just 4 years old.

Darden and WSET
Darden speaks with WSET’s Kari Beal on Thursday morning.

Darden did teach high school briefly after college but was soon hired as a research assistant at Virginia State University, where she studied aerosol physics and taught math. The job paid for her graduate degree in applied mathematics, which she received in 1967.

“If I hadn’t taken all those extra math classes in college, I would not have gotten that position,” Darden said during her talk.

The job she landed at NASA shortly after had little to do with the equations she solved during graduate school. As a data analyst, she was stuck in a dead-end job: While NASA’s engineers, who were all men, worked on the kinds of problems Darden was trained in and were publishing papers, giving talks and getting promoted, Darden’s job never changed. In 1972, Darden decided she was going to speak up.

If she didn’t feel discrimination when she first started at NASA, she certainly felt it now.

“Why is it that the women and men who come in with the same background are assigned different jobs?” she asked a NASA director. He admitted no one had ever asked that question. But it was a good one. Instead of being fired, as Darden had feared, she was transferred to the engineering division and began a 25-year career as an aeronautical engineer.

Christine Darden
Christine Darden. Photo courtesy of NASA

In 1983, Darden earned a Ph.D. in engineering from George Washington University and in 1989, she was appointed leader of the Sonic Boom Team. From about 1997 until her retirement in 2007, she worked in management, having become the first African-American woman at Langley Research Center to be promoted into the senior executive service.

During her talk, Darden illustrated those milestones with a series of photographs and spoke in depth about the physical science behind supersonic airplanes. It’s one thing to read about her accomplishments, but another to hear her speak about them so modestly. A few of the banquet’s attendees already knew her story firsthand, having met Darden earlier that day when she visited the engineering program’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day.

It was a different experience from the night’s glamorous event. Darden observed quietly as Bethany Brinkman, an associate professor of engineering in Sweet Briar’s Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program, introduced the 13 high school participants to their one-hour project: building a drawing machine. Women’s college recruiter Lauren Guerrant from Google was there, too.

“We don’t expect everything to work, and that’s just fine,” Brinkman said. “I want you to play around with it and have fun!”

Darden and high school girls engineering
Darden with participants in Sweet Briar’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering event

Several of the machines did indeed work when it came time for Darden to talk to the group.

“Who here has seen ‘Hidden Figures’”? she asked. All hands went up. “Did you like it?” Yes, they did. It’s one of Darden’s favorite moments when she speaks to high school or college students. “They always talk about how inspired they are by the movie,” she said.

She comes back to one movie quote often because it illustrates her own philosophy: “Learn all you can and be valuable to somebody.” And, she adds: Focus on your work, do your job well and speak up for yourself. It’s what all three “Hidden Figures” did in the movie and in real life, she says, and it’s her best advice to women in science — and to anyone trying to step it up in their careers.

The often-cited statistic that girls lose confidence in their scientific abilities as they get older may derive from what they are told — by parents or teachers — when they’re young, Darden says. “Don’t tell them that ‘that’s not what girls do,’” she explains. “When women are told they don’t belong in certain careers, we are losing a lot of talent.”

It’s a good thing Darden didn’t hear any of those voices.

Sweet Briar College’s National Engineers Week Banquet 2018 was presented with participation from Google. To watch Darden’s full speech, click here.