By William Huang
Every year, the month of February is reserved for the observance of Black history, a way of remembering and honoring important people and events of African ancestry. During this month, many people remember influential civil rights figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and many more. However, African Americans have also made great impacts in the STEM fields, allowing the furthering of knowledge, human development, and equal opportunities. Let’s look at some prominent black leaders in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
George Washington Carver
(Credit: Library of Congress/Washington D.C.)
Starting from humble beginnings as a slave, George Washington Carver was a prominent American scientist and inventor in the early 1900s. After he studied Botany and became the first black student to graduate from Iowa State University with a Bachelor of Science in 1894, he was determined to help poor farmers in the rural South. He introduced the idea of crop rotation and used peanuts to test his theories. He was ultimately successful as he found that the peanuts’ excellent nitrogen fixating properties improved soil that was depleted by growing cotton. He also invented the Jesup Wagon, a horse-drawn laboratory for demonstrating soil chemistry. He transferred his ideas to sharecroppers who were ecstatic about the large yield that resulted.
Photo of a Jesup Wagon (Credit: Tuskegee University)
Some of Carver’s additional influences include assisting to produce a peanut-based replacement for rubber, developing over thirty colors of dye from Alabama soils, spreading awareness about nutrition and its importance, inventing a variety of peanut products (e.g. flour, paste, insulation, paper, etc.), and developing hundreds of other products using peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans.
Although he started small and fought against inequality, Carver became a major innovator in STEM. As a humble man, he said, “It is not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobile one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank that counts. These mean nothing. It is simply service that measures success.”
Katherine Johnson was a NASA physicist and mathematician who performed many complex calculations that enabled human space flight in the 1960s. In her early years, Johnson was driven by her intense curiosity and brilliance with numbers, allowing her to skip several grades in school. Speeding through West Virginia State College’s mathematics curriculum, she was mentored by W. W. Scheffelin Caytor and graduated with highest honors in 1937.
In 1957, the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite jump started her career and impact in NASA. She is most well known for her work during John Glenn’s orbital mission in 1962. At the time, lackluster computers were programmed to calculate the orbital equations that would control the spacecraft’s trajectory. However, Glenn did not trust the unreliable computers and called upon Johnson to double-check the calculations saying, “If she says they’re good...then I’m ready to go.” In 2016, in honor of Johnson and two other female African-American NASA scientists, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, the movie Hidden Figures was filmed focused on their impact on that very mission. In addition to the 1962 orbital mission, she was involved in the calculations for Apollo, the Space Shuttles, and the Earth Resources Satellite launch. In 2015, at the age of 97, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson is an influential American astrophysicist who hosted NOVA ScienceNow and continues to spread scientific knowledge and awareness to the public. He is one of America’s best-known scientists and has an undeniable talent for presenting complex concepts in clear, relatively simple terms for the average person. After earning a doctorate in astrophysics from Columbia University in 1991, Tyson landed a job at the Hayden Planetarium, eventually becoming the program’s director.
One of Tyson’s most controversial decisions at the time and even today, was the classification of Pluto as a dwarf planet, removing it from the display of planets in our solar system. Although some disagreed, the International Astronomical Union followed Tyson’s lead in 2006, officially naming Pluto a dwarf planet. He has also increased scientific literacy in his audiences by hosting the NOVA ScienceNow documentary series, writing several books for the general public, and making many media appearances. As one of the few African Americans in astrophysics, he has brought diversity to his field.
Aside from these three leading African Americans, there are many more figures, such as Mae C. Jemison (first African American woman in space), Lonnie G. Johnson (former U.S. Air Force and NASA engineer), and Walter Lincoln Hawkins (made universal telephone service possible). Besides their passion for STEM, all these leaders have one thing in common: they strive to increase diversity and inspire future minority generations to pursue careers in STEM.
Bagley, M. (2013, December 7). George Washington Carver: Biography, Inventions & Quotes. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/41780-george-washington-carver.html
Loff, S. (2016, November 22). Katherine Johnson Biography. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography
Neil deGrasse Tyson. (2020, January 22). Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/scientist/neil-degrasse-tyson
Siegel, A. (2017, February 7). 10 Black Innovators in STEM to Recognize This Black History Month. Retrieved from https://www.salesforce.com/blog/2017/02/black-stem-innovators.html