Modern 'Figures': NASA engineers hope to inspire other women of color in science

Published: Jan. 25, 2017 at 1:33 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 26, 2017 at 10:42 AM CST
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Tiera Gunn (Source: WBRC video)
Tiera Gunn (Source: WBRC video)

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WBRC) - The performance of Hidden Figures at the box office suggests it is inspiring multitudes of people, but relatively few may be as close as to becoming an inspiration in the near future as Tiera Guinn.

As she closes in on her 22nd birthday, Guinn is already working as a Rocket Structural Design and Analysis Engineer for the Space Launch System Boeing is building for NASA. The rocket is intended to take people and payload to Mars within the next few years.

Guinn says working on what is being called the most powerful rocket in history is a humbling experience. But Guinn has been working toward this role for a long time. Her mother, who still works as an accountant, started honing Guinn's math skills early on. So when Guinn decided she wanted to build planes and rockets she was already well-situated for and focused on the math and science classes she chose from middle school on.

"The high school I chose that took me an hour to get to every day, it was because I wanted to be an aerospace engineer," she said. "The college I go to MIT, it is only because I want to be an aerospace engineer."

In fact, she is due to graduate with a 5.0 GPA.

While she is inspired by the heroines of Hidden Figures -- she says she cried when she met Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book the movie is based on -- Guinn sees herself as someone widening the path for what she hopes will be more women, especially women of color in leadership roles in the space program.

"There's no telling where we'll be going next," Guinn says. "Maybe we'll make it to Pluto. But diversity is a key component."

And Guinn isn't alone in her accomplishments as a woman of color in the aerospace industry.

Dr. Shelia Nash-Stevenson and Dr. Ruth Jones have at least two firsts and a second between them.

Jones is the first woman to earn a Bachelors of Science degree in Physics from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB). But it didn't happen the way you might expect. First, a medical emergency interrupted her plans to enlist in the U.S. military.

So she changed gears and enrolled at UAPB with a plan.

"I majored in accounting because I knew it was easier and I wanted to enjoy the college life," she said.

Having taken calculus in high school, she found her college accounting classes redundant and in her junior year, yielded to a professor's encouragement to change her major to physics.

"But he failed to tell me that I was the only physics major on campus. So it was just me and my professor in class, one on one," she said.

She took her bachelors degree to Alabama A&M where she earned a masters in Physics. The university says she is the second African-American woman in the state to earn a doctorate in Physics, behind Nash-Stevenson.

Nash-Stevenson, who also loved math as child, grew up in rural Hillsboro, Alabama. She initially wanted to teach math but professor M.C. George encouraged her to continue her education and guided her eventually toward her doctorate in physics. Today, Nash-Stevenson works as an integration engineer for the Planetary Programs Missions Office at NASA, making sure the agency's exploratory missions meet their goals and apply best practices from previous missions.

Dr. Jones is a Mishap Investigation Specialist, who digs for the root causes of problems that plague any mission to help the agency avoid those problems in the future.

The women agree that Hidden Figures is an important film and hope that it will encourage more girls, especially African-Americans girls to value their intellect and explore opportunities available within the space program.

"Just know your subject matter," Dr. Jones said. "Anybody can learn. And once you learn, you can change the world."

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