A Hidden Figure: Am I different because I knew her?

19 Jan 2017

As a 1982 college freshman who began her work at NASA Langley, Hampton, Virginia, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Rumor was the campus was filled with young male engineering students from around the US and, as an 18-year-old girl, that aspect certainly interested me.

This afternoon, I stole away to see the movie Hidden Figures as I had heard it is outstanding. (And it was, despite what I suspect is a good bit of embellishment.) I settled in with my soda and popcorn, anticipating an inspiring story of three women of color who worked behind the scenes to the 1960’s NASA space program success. I was NOT prepared for the realization in scene one that this was the account of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson, a fellow co-worker from the Spacecraft Control Branch between 1984 and 1986. [As one Virginia friend texted, “Have you been under a rock? We are all so proud of her!”]

Although there was a single wall between our offices back in the day, I didn’t know Katherine well. She and her two office mates were quiet birds of a feather, hard workers who shared the same sense of humor. That said, I DO remember her spirit, which stood out to the then 20-year-old doing my best to find my way. She and I were two of the few females who worked in the branch over the course of those three years.

I initially went to NASA assuming I would complete the two-year administrative training and dive into full-time work. However Katherine, and many at NASA like her, challenged me by increasing my thirst for knowledge. They planted a seed that remained through night school to complete a four-year degree. These colleagues of days gone are brilliant and caring, one sending 30 years of birthday and anniversary cards. (Yes… thirty.)

Although it all began producing technical papers alongside this crew, today the papers are of another sort: grant proposals. It hit me as I watched the movie; I owe my journey’s launch to them. SO… many thanks, FDCD friends: Katherine, Larry, Dr. A, Doug P. Steve Suresh, Dr. S., John, Claude, Doug A, Gin, Linda, Marna, Gary, Tony, Ernie, Jim B, Jim W, Ray, Dan, and any others I may have missed. I AM different because I’ve known you.

Rhonda Poppen is an independent grant consultant and certified grant writer, working from San Francisco alongside Buddy, Labrador/Great Dane and office mate. She is a self-proclaimed pen, paper and word nerd who pours her heart into writing winning grant proposals.