Everyone is buzzing about the film Hidden Figures, starring compelling Black actresses Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer, as well as singer-turned-actress Janelle Monáe. Aside from the star-studded cast, the film gained national attention and award nominations ahead of its January 6 release because it's based on the often untold true story about three Black women — Katherine Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Monáe) — who were the brains behind NASA's launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit.
Not only did this profound trio cross gender and race lines in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but they set the stage for other African-American women to excel in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. Although there's still a long way to go — as the diversity of the STEM workforce has remained the same since 2001 — according to data from Change the Equation, Black women have been making strides in the field. And not only in real life.
Fictional characters such as Marvel Comic's 15-year-old Riri Williams aka Ironheart, a young black MIT student who managed to reverse engineer one of Iron Man Tony Stark's older armors. Another Marvel Universe creation is a sweet little Black girl: 9-year-old super genius and skillful engineer Luella Lafayette, who was hailed as the smartest hero at 2016's San Diego Comic-Con.
Now, let's lift the veil on some other extraordinary real-life hidden figures — Black women in the STEM field that you may or may not know. Either way, their exceptional stories will surely inspire you to find the superhero within.
1. Dr. Mae C. Jemison
Mae C. Jemison is the first African-American woman to ever go to space with the Endeavour mission in 1992. But that was just one first for her. The Decatur, Ala. native became the first African-American woman to be admitted into the astronaut training program in 1987. She's received several accolades for her work, and even had a guest role in 1993 as Lt. Palmer on Star Trek: The Next Generation. In December she tweeted a throwback photo of her scene and wrote, "Star Trek inspired me to become a @NASA Astronaut!"
"Never limit yourself because of others' limited imagination; never limit others because of your own limited imagination," she once said.
2. Dr. Aprille J. Ericsson-Jackson
Aprille J. Ericsson-Jackson was the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Howard University, and the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in engineering at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. But she's not one to rest on her laurels, as Ericsson-Jackson believes in paying it forward and paving the way.
"I feel it is important to create an early mathematical and/or science interest in young people and maintain it throughout their later years," she once told BeAnEngineer.com. "Therefore, I work with all age groups: elementary, junior high school, high school and college."
3. Dr. Marie M. Daly
Dr. Marie M. Daly is the first African-American in the United States to earn a Ph.D.. in chemistry, which she received from Columbia University. Before that, she graduated with honors in 1942 from Queens College. She later championed the need to support students of color interested in pursuing physics and chemistry at Queens College by establishing a scholarship fund in memory of her father, Ivan C. Daly, who studied chemistry at Cornell University after emigrating from the West Indies. He was never able to complete his degree due to financial strains. Dr. Daly fulfilled her father's dreams by helping other young Black students get into the field.
4. Dr. Aletha Maybank
Aletha Maybank is a young, highly respected physician who's excelled in the medical profession on and offscreen. The Columbia University grad received a master's of public health from the institution's prestigious Mailman School of Public Health. She's now the assistant commissioner at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, but often lends her medical expertise to television and film. You may have seen her as a commentator on MSNBC's former Melissa Harris-Perry Show, as well as on Disney Jr.'s popular hit animated series Doc McStuffins. In fact, she worked within a group of female African-American physicians, which grew from the Artemis Medical Society she co-founded, to launch a campaign called "We Are Doc McStuffins," to bring the faces of real-life African-American doctors to the children's series in order to inspire young Black girls to pursue medical professions.
5. Dr. Claudia L. Thomas
Dr. Claudia L. Thomas goes down in the history books as the first African-American female orthopedic surgeon in the United States in 1980. Another first that same year was when Thomas became the first Black woman to complete Yale University's orthopedic residency program. The Brooklyn, N.Y. native is now a partner in an all-Black orthopedic practice, and pays it forward by encouraging and inspiring others to follow their dreams in the medical profession. But she's always put her faith and spirituality first, as evident in her popular 2007 book, God Spare Life.
6. Dr. Wanda M. Austin
Since 2008, Dr. Wanda M. Austin has led 4,000 employees as the president and chief executive officer of The Aerospace Corporation, a leading architect for U.S. national security space programs. If that weren't impressive enough, Dr. Austin also served on President Obama's Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee in 2009. By 2010, she was appointed to the Defense Science Board.
"As an engineer you want to work on those complex programs," she previously told the Los Angeles Times. "People pay attention to people working on the hard problems."
Always giving back, the University of Southern California doctoral grad has undertaken a number of initiatives in support of inspiring the next generation to make science and engineering preferred career choices.
7. Rachel A. Brooks
Rachel A. Brooks describes herself best as a professional that creates "experiences at the intersection of consumer products and technology." The tech guru is a digital producer and co-founder of Citizen Made, a New York-based company that offers software to businesses to help them increase sales and recognition of their unique brands by helping their customers "visually place" their orders from their sites.
"I work with companies around the world to figure out how to bring ideas swiftly into reality," the University of Michigan grad explained on her website. "I travel extensively to help spread this fairy dust to the rest of the world of brand, retail, design and manufacturing."
Cover image: 20th Century Fox / YouTube