'Hidden Figures' author to speak, honor MLK's memory at Purdue


Author(s): Tim Brouk

The author that inspired one of the holiday season’s breakout films will help headline Purdue University’s Martin Luther King Jr. memorial events.

Margot Lee Shetterly
"Hidden Figures" author Margot Lee Shetterly

Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book “Hidden Figures” was brought to movie theaters nationwide by director Theodore Melfi. The cast includes A-listers Ocatavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons. The book and film pay tribute to the African American female mathematicians, engineers and computer scientists, who played a key role in the early years of NASA.

Shetterly will speak at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 25 at the Loeb Playhouse inside Purdue’s Stewart Center. The event is free and open to the public.

“Hidden Figures” showcases the talents of the women of the segregated West Area Computers division of the Langley Research Center, concentrating on the trio of mathematics geniuses Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. Their work was integral in the Space Race era and helped fuel projects Mercury and Apollo.

“In many circles their role has been all but forgotten, but their story is compelling and well worth hearing and sharing,” said Department of Mathematics head Greg Buzzard. “Ms. Shetterly's appearance at Purdue provides us a glimpse into the lives of these fascinating women and into her role in sharing their story.”

Using this team’s calculations, NASA caught up to the Russians in the space race and allowed John Glenn to become the first American astronaut to make a complete orbit of Earth. Johnson received a 2015 Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. The medal is one the highest citizen honors in the nation. In May, NASA commemorated Johnson, 98, for her contributions by naming a computer facility within Langley Center in her honor. She was only the second woman to receive such an honor from NASA.

In September, The Hollywood Reporter dubbed Shetterly a “power author” and an “up-and-comer to watch.”

A Virginia native and daughter of a NASA research scientist, Shetterly has also established The Human Computer Project, an endeavor that is recovering the names and accomplishments of all of the women who worked as computer scientists, mathematicians, scientists and engineers at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and NASA from the 1930s through the 1980s. 

“We are honored to share this story with the Purdue community as we continue to seek ways to broaden participation by women and underrepresented minority students in STEM disciplines,” said Renee Thomas, director of the Purdue Black Cultural Center. “Shetterly helps us change our perception of what a scientist looks like, what a mathematician looks like and who’s capable of doing that work at the highest level.”

Shetterly’s appearance is sponsored by the College of Science, College of Engineering, The Graduate School, Black Cultural Center, Department of Mathematics, Department of Statistics, Department of Computer Science, School of Mechanical Engineering, School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and School of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering.

“We are honored to help welcome Margot Lee Shetterly to Purdue,” said Craig Svensson, interim dean of the College of Science. “Her research and writing has helped shine a much deserved spotlight on much deserved mathematicians who solved problems and wrote code for NASA while breaking social barriers. Their story inspired a book and film, and it will hopefully inspire a new generation of young women to pursue science and mathematics."

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