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Against all odds: five inspiring stories of Black women who revolutionised STEM

By Caterina Magnoni Oct 11, 2023

Historically, the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have mainly been occupied by men, with women, in particular women of colour, facing challenges in their pursuit of scientific merit.  

However, Black women have played an essential role in the developments and achievements of critical fields such as medicine and aerospace engineering, while fighting deeply rooted stereotypes.

Here is our roundup of five notable Black women in STEM.

Alice Ball

Born in Seattle in 1892, the granddaughter of one of the very first black photographers, Alice Ball was the first African American to earn a master’s degree in chemistry from what is now the University of Hawaii. She developed the most effective treatment for leprosy, a chronic infectious disease and gave hope to thousands of people forced to live segregated from the rest of the world.  

Mae Jemison 

Mae Jemison is an African American engineer, physician and former NASA astronaut. Ever since she was a child, she loved staring up at the stars and imagining going there, which she actually did: she was the first woman of colour to travel into space on the space shuttle Endeavour in 1992. She took with her a poster of Judith Jamison performing the dance Cry, a Bundu statue representing the importance of women in society in West Africa. She also took a flag of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the oldest African American sorority in the US, to represent all the people who are often not included.  

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson was the first African American aerospace engineer to work at NASA in 1958, during the midst of racial segregation. If we were able to touch the stars, it was also because of her: her calculations played an essential part in the 1969 moon landing. She worked as a research mathematician in the segregated west area of the computing section. After 34 years at NASA, Jackson took a demotion to work as an administrator in the Equal Opportunity Specialist field and get more women into the space agency. 

Gladys West

Gladys West is an African American mathematician who contributed to the invention of the Global Positioning System (GPS). She got her master’s degree in mathematics from Virginia State University in 1955, and then started working at the former Naval Proving Ground as a computer programmer. She was only the fourth black person hired there. West was inducted into the Air Force Space and the Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame at the Pentagon, proving that no dream is limited by the colour of one’s skin or gender. 

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was one of the first African American women to work as a NASA scientist. Nicknamed ‘the human computer’, along with Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, she calculated the trajectory of the Apollo 11 mission that landed on the moon. Her remarkable story inspired the book Hidden Figures, later adapted as a film of the same name. It was nominated for Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards. Thanks to her love for maths, she contributed to making space available to all of us.  

The achievements of these women and many others not mentioned here, have not only advanced our understanding of the world but have also contributed to bringing inclusivity to the world of science and innovation. 

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