Michelle Otero was in the 8th grade when she searched the web for influential aerospace leaders of color. As a Hispanic woman, she said she found it important to find minorities who she could look up to, even if they weren’t in her community.
The UCF Ph.D student came across Katherine Johnson, a legendary NASA mathematician known for her mathematical abilities portrayed in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures” and a 2018 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.
Johnson died on Feb. 24 at 101 years old — but her legacy will live on at UCF forever.
“I always wanted to do engineering, but I always thought as a male-dominant career maybe that wouldn’t be very successful for me. And just reading about the history and all the impacts she was able to do, I came to realize that if she could do it in the times she did it as a female and as a black woman then I could do it as a minority,” Otero said.
According to NASA, Katherine Johnson broke barriers as an African American woman in 1953 when she moved to Newport News, Virginia, to pursue a position at NASA in the all-black computing section. She was known as a “human computer” who solved complex computations when electronic computers were still on the up rise.
In 1961, Johnson assisted in making history after she calculated the trajectory of Alan Shepard’s space flight, which then became America’s first human space flight, according to NASA.
Students in the National Society of Black Engineers said having influences like Katherine Johnson motivate them to continue to pursue engineering and find their place in the industry.
Senior aerospace major Marcus Jordan said aerospace is something he’s dreamt of pursuing since he was a child, but finding influences like Johnson pushed him to make those dreams a reality.
“Seeing someone who looks like you, talks like you, speaks like you and just having that figure like that could just give you the insight of, ‘Wow, someone like me can be just like that years from now,'” Jordan said.
Jordan said he believes having leaders like Johnson in his community inspires kids just like him to strive to make a difference when they’re older.
“Katherine Johnson was my role model when I couldn’t find one in the hispanic community, said Otero, I know she had to work twice as hard as a black woman and I feel like she paved the way for hispanic women to join this community.”