Black History Month: Hidden Figures

When the movie Hidden Figures came out in 2017, I made sure to go see it in theaters.  Not only did it sound interesting, I wanted Hollywood to know that a movie about black female scientists had a paying audience.

Like most people, I had no idea of the story of the “colored computers,” women whose work helped the U.S. get into space.  Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble Johnson, and Mary Jackson spent years doing mathematical calculations that were critical our efforts in World War II, the Korean War, and the space race against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

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Mary, Katherine, and Dorothy as portrayed in the movie

If you want to dig a little deeper into their story, you can check out the book that the movie was based on.  Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly came out in 2016 and tells the story of the computers in greater detail.

The book follows several generations of computers, starting with Dorothy Vaughan who joined during the expansion of aeronautics research at NACA (the precursor of NASA) during WWII.  With so many men off at war, the need for mathematicians meant that many women, even black women, were hired into the workforce at Langley.  And even after the war, the need to maintain the superiority of our air forces during conflicts like the Korean War meant that other women like Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson came to join Dorothy.  Eventually, the importance of the space race meant the creation of NASA and starting space research basically from scratch, bringing in even more talent such as Christine Mann Darden.

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Hidden Figures was Shetterly’s first book, and that shows a bit in the way parts get bogged down in the overwhelming amount of detail.  (It took me a while to read this one.)  According to the Kindle version, the Notes and Bibliography take up 20% of the book.

But at the same time, that detail allows a full picture of what life was like during these times, particularly for these women and their families.  As someone who was born in the 80s, this book provides valuable context for not only the civil rights movement and major historical events, but also scenes of daily life during these times.

The movie is an excellent adaptation, streamlining all the detail into a smooth narrative.  Of course, that means it is not always perfectly factual; the timeline of these women’s careers is greatly compressed, for example.  There is also a Young Readers version of the book that I understand is more readable as it is for children.

As a scientist, there were a couple of notes from the book that I found interesting.  First, most of these women were originally teachers, one of the most stable, respected professions for smart black women at the time.  Yet these were women that could (and in some cases, did) have received advanced degrees in mathematics and engineering.  Imagine today if the same people who are NASA scientists were instead high school teachers!

Second, the structure of scientific research that Shetterly describes at NASA is very similar to science today.  She describes teams led by engineers (who today would be called Principal Investigators or PIs) with support staff such as the computers (today’s laboratory technicians, including myself).  The engineers would draft research reports or memos that would be picked apart by a committee before being finalized; this is much like the peer review process today governing how scientists publish papers in journals after being critiqued by external reviewers.

As a lab tech, I appreciated that this book focused on how the contributions of the computers to NASA’s research were just as important as those of the engineers.  However, the fact remains that many of the computers should have been engineers to begin with, being just as intelligent and capable as their supervisors, and many fought their whole careers to advance and be accepted as such.

It has been wonderful to see these women get the recognition they deserve.  Katherine Johnson now has two NASA facilities named after her, and she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.  Not only are the “hidden figures” an important part of black history and an important part of U.S. history, they also helped to pave the way for women like me in science.  Even if I never knew it until recently.

Check out my review of the Hidden Figures movie here.

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Black History Month: Afrofuturism and Black Panther

I went to see Black Panther last weekend, and it was every bit as good as everyone said.  One of its most striking aspects is the visual aesthetic and culture of Wakanda, a successful cross of organic and technological, traditional and futuristic.  It is one of the most stunning recent representations of a decades-long movement called “Afrofuturism.”  Although it may not have always been at the forefront of the genre, it has had a deep and lasting impact on science fiction.

Janelle Monáe’s album The ArchAndroid

Afrofuturism has its roots in the mid-20th century works of authors such as W.E.B. DuBois and Ralph Ellison.  The term itself was coined in the ’90s to describe the trend of “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture.”  Hugo- and Nebula-winning author Octavia Butler produced some of the most famous works of the movement.

Afrofuturism seems to be having a bit of a renaissance currently, being represented in the works of authors like Nnedi Okorafor, musicians like Janelle Monáe, and even in the video game Overwatch with the appearance of the fictional utopian city Numbani.  But the Black Panther movie is clearly destined to move Afrofuturism solidly into our collective consciousness and give it a lasting place in popular culture.

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Overwatch’s Afrofuturist city Numbani

Wakanda’s Afrofuturistic aspects can be seen in many facets, from the visuals of its architecture and clothing to its transportation and medical care, and especially in its mirage that keeps its true advanced nature hidden from the rest of the world.  In many ways, the African culture blends seamlessly with technology powered by the fictional metal vibranium.  Traditional articles of clothing become advanced armor and shields.  A beaded bracelet is a remote control device for communications, healing, or other infrastructure systems.  Wakanda has metropolitan skyscrapers that are covered in living plants.

But Afrofuturism is more than the sum of its sci-fi tech gadgets. Note for example the difference between Black Panther and Falcon, another black MCU superhero with lots of tech.  While Falcon provides great representation for African-Americans, his MCU incarnation does not have a lot of qualities that speak specifically to that experience.  In general, Anthony Mackie could be replaced with a white actor with little change to the character.

But in the Afrofuturistic world of Black Panther, the dual nature of its African roots and forward-thinking ideas reflects the duality of the black experience.  (Interesting that even the word “African-American” itself showcases a duality.)  For a black perspective on this, I recommend this commentary on the different dichotomies of the movie; I think the Afrofuturistic vibe fits that motif as well.  The movie feels both African and (African-)American, and has a lot to say about black issues using science fiction as a background.

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Wakanda

So what about Afrofuturism has given it such staying power over the years, and such draw now? Because Afrofuturist works are typically made by black creators, and frequently for a black audience, my personal speculations are largely irrelevant.  The one thing that rings true to me is that Wakanda is an empowering, optimistic view of a possible future, where, among other things, young black women can be the head scientists of a nation.

I recently read a quote from author Shomari Wills about why he wrote his book Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires.  He said, “So much today focuses on black folks and lack.”  He went on to say that while poverty and disparity are important issues to discuss, he wanted a more positive message to honor those successful businessmen and women and empower readers.  I think Afrofuturism serves a similar purpose.  By having their own space in speculative fiction to tell unique stories, Afrofuturists can empower us to envision a future where black culture and science are not at odds but blend seamlessly.

Further Reading:

Black History Month: Henrietta Lacks, HeLa cells, and informed consent

February in the US is Black History Month.  In my mind, there are kind of two parts to this.  The first is celebrating the many accomplishments of African-Americans, from MLK Jr. and Harriet Tubman to these awesome women in STEM.  I also loved these photos floating around on Facebook:

The second part is remembering the many injustices and struggles that African-Americans have undergone during our country’s history.  In the face of these wrongs, we as a culture can:

  • bring them to light
  • try to right the wrongs as much as possible
  • take steps to make sure they don’t happen again in the future

That brings me to the story of Henrietta Lacks, told so compellingly in the 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (which I wrote about briefly here).

In 1951, Lacks presented at Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer; as a poor, African-American woman and mother of five, in that time and place her medical treatment options were limited, and she soon succumbed to the disease.  During her treatment at Johns Hopkins, samples of her tumor cells were removed without her knowledge or permission, which was a common practice at the time.

These cells were cultured in vitro (basically, grown in dishes in a special nutrient broth) in the lab of Dr. George Gey.  The researchers soon discovered that, unlike previous attempts to culture human cells, Lacks’ cells did not die off after dividing a few times.  They kept growing and dividing; they were the first human immortal cell line and were subsequently named HeLa cells.

HeLa cells grew so well, in fact, that they began contaminating other cell lines.  Researchers began looking into the genome (genetic data) of Lacks’ cells and tracked down her family, who were stunned to learn that a piece of their mother, who passed away soon after giving her tumor sample in 1951, was somehow still alive in scientific labs all over the world.

Can you imagine what that revelation must have been like for the Lacks family?  Especially since their inadequate public science education barely prepared them to understand concepts like “cells” and “culture” and “genome.”

Still, the Lacks family is justly proud of Henrietta’s contribution to science.  HeLa cells have been used in a huge number of important experiments, including Jonas Salk’s development of the polio vaccine.

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The cover features a famous picture of Henrietta Lacks.  Notice the subtle bolding of “He La”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as well as numerous journalistic articles (and blog posts), have done a great deal to bring the story of Henrietta and HeLa cells to light.  But this fame is a double-edged sword: the privacy of the Lacks family has been irrevocably compromised.  Their family history has been thrust into the national spotlight, and, since the DNA of HeLa cells has now been sequenced, even pieces of their genetic code have been analyzed.

The Lacks family does now have some say in how HeLa cells can be used.  In 2013, the family reached an agreement with the National Institute of Health (NIH) to give family members an advisory role regarding which researchers can access the HeLa genetic data.  (These researchers must also acknowledge the contribution of Henrietta and the Lacks family in their publications.)  

But they have never seen, and likely never will see, any of the money that derives from the multitude of discoveries and nearly 11,000 patents relating to HeLa cells.  Though financial compensation has never been their goal, and from a practical standpoint it would be nigh impossible at this point, it hardly seems fair that others will continue to profit from use of their ancestor’s cells while they do not.  

Clearly the only way to really fix this situation involves a time machine.  (Sadly, all the sci-fi stories I read tell me that time travel causes more problems than it solves.)  

But seriously, if the Lacks family is now satisfied, let’s look forward: how can we prevent a case like Henrietta Lacks’ in the future?

Informed consent has been a standard in medical ethics for decades now.  Researchers must ask permission from their subjects before doing any human research.  (At least, they do if they want federal funding and to be published in reputable journals.)  The federal government is currently revising these regulations, referred to as the Common Rule.  

Rebecca Skloot and others favor the inclusion of a requirement for “broad consent,” so that even anonymous, “non-identifiable” samples require some general consent before experimental use.  (To be fair, samples today are coded so much better than simply using patients’ initials like “HeLa.”  But it is still technically possible to re-identify some samples through genetics, etc.)

Critics argue that this will just result in more paperwork, bogging down science while throwing another paper at patients to be signed without real understanding.  I am a practical person, but I refuse to build science, no matter how great, on the backs of the uneducated and disenfranchised.  While another case like Henrietta Lacks’ is unlikely, public education about tissue research is critical to our ability to continue to do great science while respecting human dignity.

Henrietta Lacks is still changing the face of science today in many ways, whether it’s regarding cancer treatment or medical ethics.  I encourage you to read more at the links throughout this post, and I encourage respectful discussion in the comments.