Celebrating Accomplishments in American STEM History

February 24, 2022

This Black History Month, we want to acknowledge five leaders in STEM in American History. Mission: Ignite believes it’s critical that the contributions people of color have made to the world of STEM are celebrated. As we engage with students in Western New York, we hope to play a role in building up the next generation of change-makers from all backgrounds.

George Washington Carver: (1864-1943)

Though many remember him as the inventor of peanut butter, he actually didn't invent it. What Carver did do, however, was much more remarkable. He engineered over 300 different products using peanuts, including chili sauce, shampoo, shaving cream, and glue. Due to Carver’s work, peanuts were first classified as a crop. Another contribution of Carver's includes crop rotation: planting different crops to restore soil instead of single-crop farming. This agricultural method is widely used today and plays an important role in preventing crop shortages and dust bowls.

Carver famously stated that: “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.”

Mae C. Jemison: (1956- Present)

Though best remembered as an astronaut, Mae Jenison began her long, impressive career as a medical doctor working in international medicine and eventually became a medical officer in the Peace Corps, serving in West Africa. There she managed health care for Peace Corps and U.S. embassy personnel and worked in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control on several research projects, including developing a hepatitis B vaccine.

After returning to the United States, Jemison applied to NASA to be an astronaut. In October 1986, she was 1 of 15 accepted out of 2,000 applicants. On September 28, 1989, she received her first mission when she was selected to join the STS-47 crew as a Mission Specialist performing the first successful joint U.S.-Japan space mission. On September 12, 1992, Jemison and six other astronauts went into space on the space shuttle Endeavor. This voyage made Jemison the first African American woman in space.

"Never be limited by other people's limited imaginations,” Jemison said, “If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won't exist because you'll have already shut it out...You can hear other people's wisdom, but you've got to re-evaluate the world for yourself. The best way to make dreams come true is to wake up."

Katherine Johnson: (1918-2020)

Famously portrayed in the film "Hidden Figures" by actress Taraji P. Henson, Katherine Johnson was one of the greatest mathematicians of her age and perhaps of all time. Johnson was one of the first engineers to work at NASA, starting way back when they were NACA in 1958. She did trajectory analysis for America’s first human spaceflight. In 1960, she and another engineer coauthored a report laying out the equations describing an orbital spaceflight in which the landing position of the spacecraft is specified. It was the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division had received credit as an author of a research report. Without Johnson’s work and mathematical genius, humanity would have never made it to space, let alone the moon.

Johnson is famous for her inspiring quotes. “If you’re prepared and the opportunity comes up, it’s your good fortune to have been in the right place at the right time and to have been prepared for the job,” she said “We will always have STEM with us. Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering, and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics.”

Percy Lavon Julian (1899 - 1975)

Julian was a steroid chemist and an entrepreneur who ingeniously figured out how to synthesize important medicinal compounds from abundant plant sources, making them more affordable to mass-produce. He was a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants.

"I don't think that you can possibly embrace the kind of joy which one who has worked with plants and plant structures such as I have over a period of nearly 40 years," he said.

Julian was the first to synthesize the natural product physostigmine made history when chemists discovered that the steroid stigmasterol, which Julian had obtained from soybeans, could be used in the synthesis of certain sex hormones, including progesterone, a female sex hormone that was important in helping pregnant women avoid miscarriages.

Annie Easley: (1933-2011)

Annie Easley made history as a human-computer. Yes, a human-computer. Her mathematical skills were so advanced that her expertise (akin to Katherine Johnson’s) helped her run simulations for the newly planned Plum Brook Reactor Facility. She was one of only four black employees at the Lab when hired. In a2001 interview, she said she had never set out to be a pioneer. “I just have my own attitude. I’m out here to get the job done, and I knew I had the ability todo it, and that’s where my focus was.”

When machines replaced human computers, Easley evolved along with the technology. She became an adept computer programmer, using coding languages to support several NASA programs. She developed and implemented code used in researching energy-conversion systems and analyzing alternative power technology, including the battery technology used for early hybrid vehicles.

 

Marching forward, Mission: Ignite looks forward to a future where the students we work with in Western New York may one day end up on lists like these. Mission: Ignite advocates for and works toward future where the world of science is inclusive and represents the community they strive to serve.

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