On February 10, seven student presenters and one teacher (Club moderator Mr. Robert Bitler) representing the Research in Science Club gave presentations on Black Americans who contributed greatly to science as part of Delbarton’s celebration of Black History Month. Black History in science is one of the most important topics in STEM but it rarely receives the recognition it deserves. Telling the stories of these tremendous Black scientists is a first step towards amplifying their voices and promoting diversity in STEM.
Presenters began by talking about Gladys West...
West was born in Sutherland Virginia. Her early life was full of hardships, with her parents both being sharecroppers. West was encouraged to work in science or math when she was older, and in high school she became the valedictorian of her class. She attended college at Virginia State College (which is now known as Virginia State University). After graduating, she worked at the West Naval Surface Warfare Center where she was the second black woman ever hired and one of only four black employees. From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, West programmed an IBM computer to deliver calculations to model the shape of the Earth, she figured out that the Earth was an ellipsoid with irregularities, known as the geoid. By generating an extremely accurate model, she found out that variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces distort Earth's shape. West's data ultimately became the basis for the Global Positioning System (GPS).
The next scientist they talked about was Katherine Johnson, who performed extensive work with NASA. Johnson was handpicked to be one of three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools. From there, Johnson would begin her career by performing calculations for gust alleviation of aircraft. She calculated the trajectory for the May 5, 1961 space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. She additionally calculated the launch window Shepard's 1961 Mercury mission. Later in her career, when Nasa began using electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around the earth, Glenn specifically asked for Johnson to verify the computer's numbers. Another one of her crowning achievements was when she helped calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 moon mission.
Another great scientist mentioned was George Washington Carver. Carver became the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Science degree. Carver taught poor farmers that they could feed hogs acorns instead of commercial feed and enrich croplands with swamp muck instead of fertilizers. He developed a crop rotation system, which stopped cotton from depleting nutrients in the soil by planting peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes. What Carver is most famous for is his work with the peanut. He developed over 300 food, industrial, and commercial products from peanuts, including milk, Worcestershire sauce, punches, cooking oils and salad oil, paper, cosmetics, soaps and wood stains. He also experimented with peanut-based medicines, such as antiseptics, laxatives and goiter medications.
The club then went on to speak about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, one of the worst cases of medical malpractice in history. In 1932, 600 black men were sent to the Tuskegee Institute. They were told they had “bad blood” since most of the men had syphilis. The researchers at the facility did not tell these men that they had syphilis nor treat their disease, instead choosing to observe the effect of syphilis on these Black men. The experiment was only supposed to last a couple months, but it lasted over 40 years since the researchers wanted to study the virus more.
Next, the club profiled Mae Jemison, who is pictured above. Jemison was the first African American woman to travel to space. Jemison had a massive impact on today's world by being one of the first people to be integrated into a white school. Jemison opened her own private practice as a doctor. She was inspired by Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek to join Nasa and become an astronaut. She was selected for Nasa’s astronaut group 12, which was the first group after the Challenger explosion. Jemison went into space on the space shuttle Endeavor, where she made 127 orbits around the earth and then returned back to the Kennedy space center.
The last scientist to be mentioned was Neil DeGrasse Tyson who had been interested in science from a young age. As a teenager, he would sit and watch the stars from the roof of his apartment. Tyson was one of the first people to state that Pluto was a dwarf planet. He wrote a series of books about space, including novels on Pluto, Black Holes, and Astrophysics. He served as President George W. Bush’s advisor as an astrophysicist.
Each of these scientists have had a significant impact on science as a whole. They remind us that diversity is an essential part of life, and that we must be open to all people. These scientists have contributed greatly to society, and helped break down the racial barriers that they face. One can see the relation between these scientists' brave actions and Delbarton’s motto Succisa Virescit. Despite facing these great challenges, they grew back even stronger.
Thank you to all who joined us for the February 10 presentation highlighting the stories and achievements of Black scientists. If you missed the event, the full recording of the talk is linked here.