Last year, Hidden Figures told the story of 3 trailblazers in STEM that had gone unrecognized for many years. On a larger scale, the movie highlighted the often under-credited women who boldly pave the way for future generations and create new opportunities in diversity-challenged industries. There is a growing need to show all ethnicities and backgrounds of the next generation, how these diverse individuals are breaking glass ceilings and challenging the status quo in STEM as beyond. As such, the Illinois Diversity Council is proud to announce a series on “Modern Day Hidden Figures”. The series will include profiles and highlights on individuals making a difference in diversity-challenged industries and career fields such as STEM, aviation, psychology, legal, and more. In this inaugural edition, we follow in the footsteps of the movie and begin with the Space Industry, highlighting stories from Olympia LePoint, Loretta Cheeks, and sharing a new program launched by the NASA organization.
When Olympia LePoint was 6 years old, a school field trip altered her young life. The South Central, Los Angeles, native says she “became alive” as she viewed a mission control room and jet engines at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where her late grandfather was a janitor. “It was uplifting for me,” LePoint, 40, tells PEOPLE. “I told myself I wanted to be like the men I saw on the walls who were launching rockets.”
LePoint struggled before her career took off. She grew up in poverty, lived next door to a crack house with her siblings and single mother, and at just 10 years old, was sliced in the face by a gang member. LePoint says she savored the image of becoming a rocket scientist, revisiting her field trip memory when she was facing challenges in school.
She went on to earn her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics at California State University, and in 1998 — at 21 years old — LePoint accepted an analyst position at Boeing, which directly supports NASA. After a few months on the job, she officially became a rocket scientist. Her job included using mathematics to calculate the probability of catastrophic explosions within flight. She used her findings to help others understand the risk of flying a space shuttle into space.
She remembers walking into a room of nearly 200 hundred people and being the only female engineer in the room.
Today, LePoint is dedicated to empowering young people — especially women and people of color — to unleash their brainpower. She travels the country as a professional speaker, hosts her radio show Answers Unleashed and enjoys being a “hip” mathematics professor at Pasadena City College.
She says she hopes her story can inspire others, just as her Hidden Figures predecessors have inspired her.
Loretta is one of today’s African American STEM professionals who may not be a household name in America, but has achieved remarkable success in her career; contributed greatly to the science, technology, and engineering fields; and routinely give back.
The Ph.D. candidate developed systems and headed up teams within the communications, radio, avionics, instrumentation and control, and chemical industries. A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Cheeks’ career spans two decades where she held key technical and engineering roles with several prestigious companies including Westinghouse and Honeywell Aerospace. In addition to her technical work, she founded Strong TIES to promote STEAM (science, technology, arts, mathematics) K-12 education.
NASA Program: From Hidden to Modern Figures
NASA has also launched its own program called “From Hidden to Modern Figures”. Through a collection of videos, the organization highlights the history and strides hidden figures have made in the past, as well as shines a light on the trailblazing figures of today. For more information visit the page here: https://www.nasa.gov/modernfigures
One video highlights New Orleans teacher Katherine Michelle Sanders of St. Peter Claver School. She takes her 7th grade science on a tour of nearby NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility to see where the Space Launch System – the world’s most powerful rocket – is being built. Sanders discussed how her grandmother’s work inspired her and why she wanted her students to learn about NASA’s plan to explore deep space.
Sanders is the granddaughter of famed NASA scientist Katherine Johnson whose historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist, earn her the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented by President Barack Obama in 2015.
Written by Christine Izuakor
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