Celebrating the Women Scientists Who Inspired “Hidden Figures”
Doron Weber helps storytellers elevate untold and true scientist stories—more recently of women and people of color—by mainstreaming them into books, movies, theater, podcasts and more. Twenty years ago, he created the Public Understanding of Science, Technology and Economics program at The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which supports science and research. The Foundation hoped that exposing people to science through popular culture could enhance their understanding and appreciation of a complex field and make it more accessible to everyone. By quietly connecting the worlds of directors, Hollywood producers, and book authors to scientists, the Foundation helped uncover some of the greatest untold stories.
One of those greatest untold stories was that of the African American women who served as “computers” at NASA. Sloan supported a then unknown author, Margot Lee Shetterly, to write the book Hidden Figures, which led to the movie, and ultimately, to a remarkable movement bringing justice to more than 1,000 women who were pivotal to the Space Race. Weber met with Sen. Chris Coons and Rep. Bernice Johnson, to encourage national recognition of these inspirational women, a move that led to the passage of a bipartisan bill to honor them with the Congressional Gold Medal. To position and recognize the Sloan Foundation as pivotal to shining a light on this incredible story, Burness helped conceive, shape and organize a celebratory Capitol Hill event sponsored by the Foundation. Burness, with the support of the congressional staff of the bill’s co-sponsors, held an elegant reception in Washington, DC, inviting the NASA women scientists, their families, students from neighboring schools, members of Congress, leading scientists, and directors of the National Air and Space Museum and the Museum of African American History and Culture. We created talking points and managed logistics for nine speakers, including Sloan’s Doran Weber, the co-sponsors of the bill, a NASA official, Hidden Figures book author Margot Lee Shetterly and the movie’s producer. Burness also designed banners to adorn the room and keepsake cards for guests.
Results & Impact
The event elevated the Sloan Foundation’s role in promoting greater understanding of science and gave it and its leadership heightened visibility as a philanthropy committed to making science more widely accessible. The event generated local and national media interest and it was live-streamed on C-SPAN. Five additional senators and representatives came between floor votes to speak at the podium and they touted the bipartisan nature of the event. Dr. Christine Darden, one of the NASA “computers” to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, shared her joy of science and the power of having more women scientists. She was surrounded by many interested and eager high school young women who aspire to follow in her footsteps.