On Wed., Feb. 20, 2019, during STEM Day, Ursuline welcomed Dr. Christine Darden, one of NASA’s “hidden figures,” featured in the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, to speak to each grade about her journey as a woman in a STEM field. Dr. Darden inspired her impressionable audience through her vivid description of her life as a woman who fought to work and reach success in a male-centered career.
In a field infiltrated and dominated by men, Dr. Darden used her strong sense of determination and dedication to her passions in order to “shatter the glass ceiling” of NASA, and eventually work her way to serving as the director in the Program Management Office of the Aerospace Performing Center at NASA in Langley Research Center. However, Dr. Darden’s eventual success took time, and she fought several obstacles to reach her final position.
Dr. Darden opened her presentation by telling the students about a “formula” that she has used to keep her grounded and focused throughout her life: “P to the fifth power,” which stands for, “Perceive yourself in a job you would really like to do. Plan what you need to do to get to that job and Prepare, Persist, and Project that career.”
“You are going to run into roadblocks and detours, and you have to come up with solutions to get around the roadblocks; you have to solve the problem,” said Dr. Darden.
Darden encouraged her audience of Ursuline girls to pursue careers in STEM, saying that our country is always growing to produce and research more, and it needs “bright students like you” to do so.
Dr. Darden grew up in Monroe, North Carolina, a small town outside of Charlotte, where she was a “tomboy,” preferring to work on cars with her dad and to change tires, rather than play with dolls. Eventually, she was even able to change the carburetor by herself, a skill uncommon among teenage girls. Dr. Darden’s habits as a child proved indicative of her future interests and the career path that she would eventually follow as an adult.
She grew to love math, and in a family full of dentists, she initially dreamed of becoming a doctor. However, it was in eighth grade in her biology class that she realized how much more she enjoyed physical science over biological sciences.
During high school, Dr. Darden attended an all-girls boarding school in Asheville, North Carolina, where her love for mathematics blossomed. In her plain geometry class, she was able to see how mathematics applied to the physical world, rather than seeing math merely as lessons on a page. This class inspired her to major in mathematics in college at Virginia State University.
Although Dr. Darden entered college at slightly behind other students, as her highest math level was plain geometry, she was not deterred, and dedicated herself to catching up and “I started where I was,” she said.
Her dad, worried about job opportunities for women in mathematics during the 1960’s, suggested that she receive her teaching certificate in order to find job security, as few women had careers as mathematicians at the time. Along with studying to become a math teacher, Dr. Darden devoted herself to mathematics and her physics minor, taking and excelling in courses ranging from analytical geometry to modern geometry, to advanced calculus and 24 hours of other advanced mathematics classes that were not necessary for her to graduate.
While Dr. Darden was working as a math teacher, she learned that Virginia State University taught Friday night classes for teachers, about 80 miles away from where she worked. Dr. Darden recruited a group of teachers to take class with her, until they decided that they wanted to quit the classes, as driving 80 miles after work to take class was exhausting. Despite her exhaustion, Dr. Darden continued taking the night classes. “I thought, ‘I am going to go for it. I have to do it,’” she said.
Later, Dr. Darden’s went on to receive her master’s in applied mathematics and decided to switch gears in her career. She went to a placement office in 1967, (the very year that Apollo 1 had the accident,) and inquired about job prospects, only to learn that NASA had just been in town recruiting for a job. Dr. Darden filled out an application, and only three weeks later, NASA offered her a position as a “human computer,” a position she filled for five years.
Dr. Darden worked as a computer, a supporter for the engineers, in a branch that focused on how spaceships re-enter the atmosphere.
After five years however, Dr. Darden realized that men with the same amount of schooling and similar mathematics degrees were working in the engineering department, while she was in the computing department.
According to Denise Lineberry’s article for NASA’s “The Researcher News,” Dr. Darden risked her job and “she confidently approached her supervisor to ask why men, with the same educational background as she (M.S. in applied mathematics), were being hired in as engineers. Stooped by her question and impressed by her skills, her supervisor transferred her to the engineering section.” Dr. Darden was one of the only women in that department.
Dr. Darden then worked her way up at NASA, focusing on researching the sonic boom for 25 years.
“In 1989, she was appointed as the technical leader of NASA’s Sonic Boom Group of the Vehicle Integration Branch of the High-Speed Research Program where she was responsible for developing the sonic boom research program internally at NASA” (Lineberry).
Dr. Darden’s career at NASA lasted 40 years, where her research on the sonic boom greatly influenced today’s technology. Without Dr. Darden’s commitment and sense of determination in working for NASA, we would not have the knowledge of the sonic boom that we have today. In Lineberry’s article for NASA’s “The Researcher News,” Dr. Darden said, “I was able to stand on the shoulders of those women who came before me, and women who came after me were able to stand on mine”
Dr. Darden is a testament to the need for more women in STEM-centered fields, and her presentations at Ursuline further inspired students in their own quests for careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
“I am always amazed seeing women thrive in the STEM world. It always makes me thankful for their courage and perseverance in a once uncommon field for women. They have made a path for us all,” said Arden Howard ‘19
Sofia Garcia ’19 echoed Howard, saying, “It is inspiring, as a woman, seeing the progress made by women in a field that has been historically male-dominated.”
Thank you, Dr. Darden for your grit and courage throughout your life, and thank you for inspiring the next generation of mathematicians, aerospace engineers, and so many more careers in STEM.