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.

When sci-fi becomes real: SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch

I grew up in Florida watching Space Shuttle launches, and let me tell you, it doesn’t get any less cool with age.

If you missed it, today was a big day for SpaceX, the commercial space flight company led by Elon Musk.  They successfully launched the Falcon Heavy rocket in a test off Cape Canaveral. Watching the live stream was pretty exhilarating; I can only imagine how the engineers that worked on it feel.

SpaceX has launched plenty of rockets before; today’s flight used those rockets, the Falcon 9, as boosters for an even bigger main core.  The coolest part for me was seeing these two boosters split off and then come back to land at the Cape.

The core itself was to land on a floating platform in the Atlantic; unfortunately the feed cut out, so we are still waiting to hear its fate.

And what was the payload on this test rocket, you might ask?  Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster.  I am not kidding.  You can watch “Spaceman” live here as he drifts towards Mars.

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From the live feed, approx. 5pm EST

The Falcon Heavy will probably never carry people, but SpaceX is working on an even bigger rocket, the BFG, that hopefully someday will.

Hello, I’m an #ActualLivingScientist (AMA)

I’ve seen a lot of calls recently for scientists to do some outreach and explain to the general public what they do for a living, how science works, etc.

A major effort came in February after David Steen, PhD (@AlongsideWild), tweeted that “most Americans can’t name a living scientist.” With some help from Mary Roblyer (@darthmom7), the hashtag #actuallivingscientist took off on Twitter, with scientists introducing themselves and their work.

So…hi!  I want to do something similar here, as well as open the floor up for questions.

My Science Career

I have a Bachelor’s in Zoology from a small, four-year liberal arts university, with emphasis on genetics and animal behavior.  I received an honors diploma for my independent study research on developmental genetics of C. elegans, a tiny hermaphroditic roundworm.  (I also had to sit an exam, but that’s less exciting.)  I also did internships at zoos, doing animal care work as well as observational research on various animal behavior.

After graduation I worked as a zookeeper and then at an animal shelter for a few years.

I currently work at a medical school in the research department.  I am a research assistant in a lab that investigates how to grow new blood vessels in hearts with heart disease, using stem cells created in the lab.  I have been listed as an author on several papers we have published in research journals.

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I also make cool designs with my pipette tips when I bored at work.

Ask Me Anything

As part of my outreach, I’d like to invite my readers to ask me anything they are curious about regarding science.  Some topics might include:

  • Daily tasks of my job
  • Current experiments in the field of stem cell therapy for heart disease
  • Where my funding comes from
  • Clarification of any terminology I’ve used in this post
  • How scientific papers get published
  • Science in science fiction
  • How science intersects with my religion
  • My opinions of current science topics in the news
  • What kind of music I listen to in the lab

For personal and professional reasons, I can’t give too many details about my current work.  But I will do my best to answer all your questions as fully as possibly.

Basically, if you ask a sincere, polite question, you will get a sincere, polite answer.  Leave your question in the comments below, and I’ll respond to you there.  If your question is really good, I might even make a whole post about it. 🙂

The questions don’t even have to be about biology; I have plenty of scientist friends in other disciplines I can appeal to.  Though, if you have a very specific question like How much Force power can Yoda output?, I’d encourage you to try submitting it to What If?  because I don’t have time to watch The Empire Strikes Back repeatedly to check the X-wing’s rate of ascent.

Some previous posts I’ve written about science:

Hidden Figures

I am unavailable to march today, but one of my sorority sisters is attending the Women’s March in DC and offered to make a sign listing the names of those of us there in spirit, and I asked her to include my own.  In the meanwhile, I’m going to give a shout out to a movie featuring some other awesome women: Hidden Figures.

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This biopic follows three African-American women at NASA during the space race of the 60s. Though some of it is a bit dramatized, it is all based on real life. I saw it opening weekend and loved it…and apparently so did a lot of other people.  In its opening weekend it actually beat Rogue One (which had already been out a few weeks, but was playing in nearly twice as many theaters) at the box office, and held on to the #1 spot over MLK Jr. weekend, too.  It’s a great movie for anyone to enjoy, but I would really encourage all young women especially to see it.

On to the science!

Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is a brilliant mathematician working as a “computer” at Langley Research Center and is assigned to the Space Task Group to help with the calculations for the launch and landing of Alan Shepard and John Glenn.  In Glenn’s case, putting a man into orbit around the Earth has never been done, so there isn’t a mathematical model for the situation.  Rather than looking at it as an “applied math” situation from a physics perspective, Goble finds a purely mathematical model that simply fits the numbers.

My favorite quote from her: “So, yes, they let women do some things at NASA, Mr. Johnson, and it’s not because we wear skirts.  It’s because we wear glasses.”  I think I related to her most of all the women.

Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is an aspiring engineer, attempting to take night classes at a white high school. She is supported in this by her Polish-Jewish boss, but her husband (Aldis Hodge) is more hesitant.  I liked how the movie showed the struggle for civil rights not as one united movement pushing forward to a single goal, but going in fits and starts, with many different foci, sometimes at odds within the movement (white women especially don’t appear as allies here).  When Mary doesn’t want their young kids to see the news about a firebombing of a bus, her husband replies, “Everybody needs to see this.”  It was a powerful moment for me, thinking about present day events: videos captured on phones and uploaded, violence against innocent people that can no longer be hidden.  If we want to change the world, we have to face it first.

Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) watches as men install the IBM that may put her whole staff of computers out of a job.  So she learns FORTRAN from a library book and starts working with the machine.  But she doesn’t stop there…she teaches her entire staff of African-American women how to program as well, ensuring that the whole group is kept on to work with the IBM.  Now that’s “leaning in.”

So the science part is great.  But the movie also shows these women as not just scientists, but leaders in their community as well.  They are moral women; we see them going to church, raising children, and participating in positive relationships with good men.  They support each other in their struggles and ambitions.

I was so impressed with the marketing for this movie.  It did a great job focusing on the three leading women in advertisements, so much so that I was surprised by the appearance of several white or male actors during the movie because I hadn’t even realized they were going to be in it.  I think this shows that a movie featuring black women can perform well, and hopefully Hollywood will taken this lesson from Hidden Figures and give us more.

One last note: the movie also shows astronaut John Glenn in a very good light, a point of pride for us in Ohio.  He unfortunately didn’t get to see it before he passed away last year, but it was a wonderful tribute to him.  (They also just renamed the Columbus airport for him recently.)

So if you are looking for sometime to do this weekend that will both entertain you and make you think about how far we have come–and how far we have to go–I highly recommend checking out a showing of Hidden Figures.  And I think I may go learn FORTRAN now. ~_^

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.