Panel Discusses the Film Hidden Figures

Panel Discusses the Film Hidden Figures

Deans, students, and community members gathered March 28th on the Syracuse University campus for a screening and panel discussion of the Oscar nominated film, Hidden Figures, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe as pivotal contributors to NASA’s early space program. The event was free and open to the public. Event sponsors included WiSE, SU ADVANCE, Office of Faculty Affairs, Council on Diversity and Inclusion, and the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

The panel consisted of Syracuse University Deans from four STEM related colleges: Teresa Dahlberg from the College of Engineering and Computer Science; Liz Liddy from the iSchool; Joanna O. Masingila from the College of Education; and Karin Ruhlandt from the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as Dr. Sharon Brangman, M.D. from Upstate Medical Center. Graduate student Tonya Wilson (Ph.D. candidate, Math Ed) and undergraduates Treasure Bellamy (Bioengineering, ‘17) and Miracle Rogers (Bioengineering and Exercise Science, ‘17) rounded out the panel. LaVonda Reed, the Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs moderated the event and noted her personal connection to the evening’s events. Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, which inspired the film, was her college roommate at the University of Virginia.

Dr. Brangman emphasized the importance of the film as a depiction not only of women’s history or black history, but of American history. She observed that the film reveals the historic tensions between “the way things are (or have been) and the way things should be.” She wondered what would happen if all the energy that women and people of color put forth to break barriers could be redirected towards scientific research and invention. She remarked, “The energy society puts towards limiting people limits us all — as well as society as a whole.”

Miracle Rogers remarked upon the kind of role model of that Dorothy Vaughn (played in the film by Octavia Spencer) represents for her. Vaughn served as the unofficial supervisor to a group of African-American women mathematicians identified at the time as “colored computers.” Vaughn recognized that the arrival of an IBM computer (a machine so big that it required its own room!) at NASA meant that the human computing group would soon be outpaced. Vaughn researched this new technology and shared her knowledge with her division. Vaughn used the specialized skill set she developed to advance in her own career and to empower her colleagues to advance in theirs. This division of mathematicians transitioned into some of the earliest computer programmers. As a result, Vaughn’s role was finally recognized. She became the first African-American to hold a supervisory position at NASA.

Hosting events such as this movie screening and panel discussion are important components in WiSE’s strategy to support women of color in STEM. Recent studies indicate that a student’s sense of belonging is one of the most important factors in determining whether members of underrepresented groups will persist in their degree programs. Demonstrating the historic and on-going presence of women and women of color working in STEM-related fields is a vital means of letting students know that their goals are achievable, that they are not alone, and that SU wants them to succeed.