HBCU Legends

Hidden Figures: Black Women in STEM

The movie Hidden Figures, based on the book by Margot Shetterly, has been highly lauded and opened nationwide as the #1 movie in the country.  It tells the story of three black women, all HBCU alum, who were early pioneers during the integration of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA's predecessor.  It should come as no surprise that the stories of many more black women, including HBCU alum, remain hidden in the shadows of American History.  This week, The Hundred-Seven is highlighting more Hidden Figures in STEM.  


Beth Brown

Howard University

Beth Brown graduated summa cum laude from Howard in 1991 with a bachelor's degree in astrophysics. When she entered the graduate program in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Michigan in 1993 she became the first African-American woman in the program. She received her PhD in 1998.  She compiled and analyzed the first large complete sample of elliptical galaxies using a satellite X-ray telescope.  Brown later worked at  NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center where she continued to research these galaxies and represented the agency local and national news outlets. Brown died in 2008 at age 39.  

Christine Darden

Hampton University, Virginia State University

In 1967, Christine Darden was added to the pool of 'human computers' who wrote complex programs and crunched numbers for engineers at NASA's Langley Research Center.  Eventually she became one of few female aerospace engineers at NASA Langley. During Darden's 40-year career at NASA, she became the deputy program manager of The TU-144 Experiments Program and was appointed as director in the Program Management Office of the Aerospace Performing Center where she oversaw research in air traffic management and aeronautics programs at NASA's other centers. Darden  is the author of more than 50 publications in the field of high lift wing design in supersonic flow, flap design, sonic boom prediction, and sonic boom minimization. Darden is also featured in the book, "Hidden Figures.'

Aprille Ericsson

Howard University

Aprille Ericsson earned a Bachelor's degree from MIT and then went on to become the first black woman to earn a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Howard.  She has been an engineer with NASA for most of her career.  Ericsson has worked as a project manager or engineer for science instruments including the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that has been orbiting the moon since 2009.  She also has helped manage science instruments set to take flight such as the ATLAS, which observes ice sheet elevation change, sea ice freeboard and vegetation canopy height as part of the ICESat-2 mission, and the Near-Infrared Spectrograph on the James Webb Space Telescope that will operate 1 million miles away from Earth.

Etta Zuber Falconer

Fisk University, Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University)

One of the first black women to earn a PhD in math, Falconer committed her life to helping black women enter STEM fields.  In three decades at Spelman, Falconer was able to encourage and support hundreds of black women pursue science and math careers as she progressed from Instructor to Department Chair to Associate Provost. Falconer helped create the NASA Women in Science Program and the NASA Undergraduate Science Research Program both designed to help more students successfully complete graduate school in STEM areas.   

"My entire career has been devoted to increasing the number of African American women in mathematics and mathematics-related careers."

Jedidah Isler

Norfolk State University, Fisk University

In 2014, Jedidah Isler became the first African-American woman to receive a PhD in Astrophysics from Yale.  Her doctoral research focused on supermassive, hyperactive black holes. Isler has been a TED Fellow and  is the creator and host of the monthly web series “Vanguard: Conversations with Women of Color in STEM.”  Currently, Isler's research focuses on blazars-supermassive hyperactive black holes that emit powerful jet streams using simultaneous infrared, optical and gamma-ray observations.  In addition to her research, Isler dedicates time to promoting inclusion in the STEM fields.  

Reatha Clark King

Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University)

Reatha Clark King is a chemist whose helped develop a material that was able to contain the compound oxygen difluoride. She also inventied a coiled tube that allowed hot liquids such as fuel to cool instead of exploding which was crucial for rocket design in the NASA space program.  Dr. King then became a professor of chemistry and associate dean at York College and served as the President of Metropolitan State University in Minnesota.  While there she worked to increase opportunities for minorities and women in higher education.  King also served 14 years as president and executive director of the General Mills Foundation and Vice President of General Mills.

Joan Murrell Owens

Fisk University

An art major at FIsk, with a double minor in math and psychology, Joan Murrell Owens went on to become the first African American woman to receive a PhD in geology. As a marine biologist she specializied in the study of corals. Her doctoral research focused on concerned species of deep-sea button corals. During her research Murrel worked with the Smithsonian and described a new genus, Rhombopsammia, and three new species of button corals, R. niphada, R. squiresi, and Letepsammia franki. L. franki was named for her husband, Frank. Prior to becoming a marine biologist, Owens designed programs for teaching English to underserve students whichserved as a model for the Upward Bound program. She also spent nearly 40 years on the faculty of Howard.

Valerie Thomas

Morgan State University

Dr. Valerie Thomas is the inventor of the Illusion Transmitter, receiving a patent in 1980. This technology was adopted by NASA and has since been used in surgery and the creation of television and video screens.
Thomas had a long career with NASA, beginning as a data analyst and eventually overseeing the creation of the Landsat satellite program. While at NASA, she worked as project manager for the Space Physics Analysis Network and was associate chief for NASA's Space Science Data Operations Office. She helped to develop computer program designs that supported research on Halley's Comet, the ozone layer, and satellite technology. She retired in from NASA in August 1995.

HBCU Presidents

Talladega  & Atlanta University, Alabama State, Shaw University, Lemoyne-Owen, Southern University

Dr. Juliette B. Bell, president of University of Maryland Eastern Shore is an alum of Talladega and (Clark) Atlanta University. She worked as a senior staff fellow and research biologist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Bell's work researching an enzyme necessary for DNA is important in understanding genetic disorders and diseases, such as cancer.
Dr. Gwendolyn Boyd, former president of Alabama State University, her alma mater, was the first black woman to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering from Yale. She spent more than 30 years at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, initially as a submarine navigation systems analyst.
Dr. Tashni-Ann Dubroy is president of Shaw University.  Previously she served as Chair of the colleges Natural Sciences & Math department.  Dubroy is also a founder of The Brilliant and Beautiful Foundation which supports the aspirations of women in scientific research and scientific enterprise. Prior to working at her alma mater, she worked as chemist at BSF and developed a line of natural hair care products for women of color.
Dr. Andrea Lewis-Miller returned to her alma mater as its first woman president.  She holds a doctorate in cell and developmental biology from Atlanta University and has conducted research at the Marine Biological Laboratories (MBL), Woods Hole, Massachusetts and at Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL), Los Alamos, New Mexico.
The late Dr. Delores Spikes became the first woman in the United States to head a university system when she was appointed head of Southern University in 1988.  She later served as president of University of Maryland Eastern Shore.  A math major at Southern, Spikes became the first African-American to earn a doctorate in mathematics from Louisiana State University.

Photo credits: Dr. Beth A. Brown Foundation, NASA, Okolona Junior College yearbook, Behold Magazine/Norfolk State, Minnesota Philanthroy Partners, Notable Black American Scientists, Elizabeth City State University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Jay Sowers/Selma Times-Journal, Facebook

Published March 2017


Follow The Hundred-Seven