skip to main content

GSS Exclusive: “Hidden Figure” Katherine Johnson speaks to NASA’s Dr. Yvonne Cagle


For those of you who follow popular culture you may be aware of a film currently showing called, Hidden Figures starring Taraji Henson. The film tells the story of Katherine Johnson, an African-American mathematician and physicist hired by NASA in 1953. Ms. Johnson was one of a team of mathematically talented black women recruited to work as “human computers”. Before leaving on his historic mission to orbit the earth, John Glenn insisted that Ms. Johnson check the computer’s math before he would agree to go. Like many women of color, her important work in this field was not publicly acknowledged until the age of 96 when President Obama awarded her the Medal of Honor in 2015.  The book, Hidden Figures by Margaret Lee Shetterly came out in September and is followed by the full-length feature film to be released January 13.

NASA Astronaut and Fordham GSS Visiting Professor, Dr. Yvonne Cagle, attended the film premiere in New York City December 10 with Ms. Johnson’s family, and along with GSS Dean Debra McPhee, hosted a breakfast. Dr. Cagle is a living legacy of the pioneering work of Katherine Johnson. She follows in Ms. Johnson’s footsteps through her work as an astronaut and by her participation in events that encourage young women of color to become aware of the opportunities available to them in STEM fields.

Dr. Cagle (2nd from the left) with members of the Johnson family.

Since Ms. Johnson was unable to attend the premiere, Dr. Cagle met with Ms. Johnson in her home in Virginia for an exclusive interview. In communicating with Dr. Cagle about her experience of the interview what comes across is how Ms. Johnson is surprised about all the attention her work and life is getting. In her view, “I was just trying to be helpful”. Her entire approach to learning is about having fun and loving your subject so much you just want to keep learning about it. Her advice to educators and others mentoring young women in the STEM fields is that they must love what they do and really care about the subject because then young people will care and want to keep learning more.  Once you learn more and are prepared, according to Ms. Johnson, “then REALLY, it becomes FUN and then you enjoy your job!” Rather than watch the film herself and analyze how true to life it is, Ms. Johnson would much rather see the expressions on people’s faces when they watch the film.  She is more curious about what impression her work has had on the world than if the movie is true to life.

Following the premiere, Ms. Johnson’s family, Dean McPhee, and Dr. Cagle attended a special screening of the film at the White House, hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama.

The screening was followed by a discussion with the cast of the movie and the author of the book Hidden Figures, Margaret Lee Shetterly. The Dean and Dr. Cagle met with the White House Chief Technology Officer, Megan Smith and Valerie Jarrett, Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls. Dr. Cagle participated in a panel discussion on the opportunities in the STEM field for women along with fellow NASA engineer, Debbie Martinez who hails from the Bronx.

As everyone knows by now Hidden Figuresreceived an Oscar nomination for best film. Although it did not take away the golden statuette, the audience received the treat of meeting Katherine Johnson in person. She was escorted onstage during the Oscar ceremony, by GSS Visiting Professor, Dr. Yvonne Cagle.

 Film Trailer (Film is Coming Out in January)

The Book

The NASA Mathematician That Advanced Human Rights (Vanity Fair)

NASA The Girl Who Loved to Count

Sky’s the Limit for Research into Space Travel, says NASA Astronaut

GSS Partnership With NASA Astronaut

Urging Women to Dream Big

Lyn Slater, PhD
Clinical Associate Professor
Fordham University  
Graduate School of Social Service 
113 West 60th Street
New York, NY 10023


Comments are closed.