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International Day of the Girl – Hidden Figures

Posted by Dr. Beth Reaves

“I felt like it was necessary to be seen and not be a hidden figure.”

– Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, American immunologist

I love when I hear the story of someone’s life that I haven’t heard before. The older I get, I still continue to be amazed when I learn about someone whose life was so impactful that I believe I should have known, seen or learned about them in school or in the media over the past 50+ years. That was exactly how I felt when the movie Hidden Figures was released in 2016. Hidden Figures tells the incredible story of 3 Black female mathematicians at NASA, whose work helped launch astronaut John Glenn into space leading to America winning the space war in 1969. Until this movie was released, I didn’t know about the lives of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson and their important contributions to science, technology and engineering explorations in the United States. They achieved this all while living their lives under the backdrop of gender discrimination and racial segregation in the Jim Crow South during that time. How, I have since wondered, did I not read about, learn about, or study these women and their incredible lives? Why weren’t their stories visible to me throughout my life?

Fast forward to now. In the United States during 2021, we learned about the substantial work of Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a prominent immunologist and researcher participating as part of a team whose research helped to identify and create the COVID vaccine. Her accomplishments are significant, especially noting that her work led to a needed remedy during a crucial nationwide crisis. But what is also noteworthy is that we are learning about her life now, in real-time. She has been publicly featured and cited for her extraordinary contributions to science, allowing us insight into her background, her thinking, her insight and her experience. The positive upside of this happening now is that young girls, particularly girls of color, are able to see that Dr. Corbett, a distinguished Black female scientist, is relevant to their lives, positively impacting current events. Her quote about not being a hidden figure speaks to her desire to be observable during her own lifetime, in essence being a visible role model for others.

Worldwide, girls continue to be impacted by the digital divide in access and use of technology, placing them at a disadvantage in their overall pursuit of technology and science related careers. Young people look to see themselves in the adults in their lives and in the media. They look for people they identify with in the images of those people that are regularly featured as leaders in their fields. It is essential to elevate women, especially women of color, in science and technology-related fields to create visibility in what may still be considered unconventional roles. As we celebrate International Day of the Girl with the theme of my voice, my equal future, I honor Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett’s work as a researcher, scientist and leading voice in the STEM field, as someone who inspires young women to pursue education and careers ultimately leading to the eradication of the digital divide for girls.