2/18/20 Unhidden Figures, Talitha Washington

Talitha Washington explains the history of being a "hidden figure" in STEM and the importance of representation. 

A mathematician spoke about some of the challenges minorities in STEM face at on Tuesday evening in Stewart Center.

Talitha Washington, a mathematician and program officer at the National Science Foundation, gave a talk entitled "How to be an Unhidden Figure in Science," which began with Washington explaining some of the basic math behind the movie "Hidden Figures." A friend of Washington’s, Rudy Horne from Morehouse College, was the math consultant on the movie.

Washington segued into exploring the upbringing and education of Katherine Johnson, one of NASA’s computers instrumental in the Apollo project and a main character in Hidden Figures. She discussed what resulted in Johnson's employment in such an important STEM position in a time when minorities in STEM were rare.

Washington said there is a severe lack of role models for minorities in technical fields, but at the same time, those in academia are dissuaded from being a public figure.

“We don’t, in the STEM community, praise people for being public,” Washington said. “It’s not a part of our value system.”

Washington covered six strategies to increase minority representation in STEM, which included recognizing that racism permeates the scientific fields, establishing robust social networks and increasing access to leadership opportunities.

“Access to leadership, that’s an ongoing challenge,” Washington said. “I think it’s because often times, at least in STEM, people don’t see me as a normal.”

Washington recounts a past experience where a man she was talking to was surprised to hear that she’s a mathematics professor, as if she’s an exception, she said.

Washington paid homage to the Chicago Six, the founders of the National Society of Black Engineers. In the 1960’s, about 80% of black engineering students at Purdue were dropping out, according to Washington. A group of students called the Chicago Six came together to form NSBE at Purdue, which is now an international organization.

Tikyna Dandridge, a PhD candidate in engineering education said she was the first African American to go through the mechanical engineering program at Purdue in 2014 during a Q & A session.

“It was difficult because they liked to remind me (in) my first (academic advising) meeting you’re the only one and first one, so don’t mess up,” Dandridge said.

Now Dandridge teaches computational thinking to students in Gary, Indiana. Dandridge asked how she can figure out what she should be doing right now, since she wants to do one thing, but people are telling her to go a more traditional route.

Washington said to “focus in, do the papers, play the research game.” Then, once you’ve done the work with the involved self-sacrifice, you get to a point where you can do what you want, and you have the resources and connections to do so.

“You don’t want to think about ‘What am I doing right now,’ you want to think about moves going forward,” Washington said. “If you just make a sacrifice for a short period of time, you can do what you want to later.”

Another student attending the talk asked what he, as a non-minority in STEM, can do to be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem.

“When you see things that aren’t happening, don’t expect another person to always stand up for themselves,” Washington said. “But you don’t want to be the white savior either, right? You want to be empowering for other people. Speak up when it’s appropriate.”

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