NJ’s own ‘Hidden Figure’ delivers powerful speech on the importance of mentoring

They call Marion Lee Johnson a “Hidden Figure.” That’s because the mathematician worked at Boeing for NASA calculating trajectories for the Saturn V rocket that sent Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969.

Johnson followed in the trailblazing footsteps of three African-American women portrayed in the film, “Hidden Figures,” NASA scientists who in 1962 helped launch John Glenn into orbit.

“These are the women whose shoulders that I stand upon. They made it happen,” said Johnson. “My contributions were shrouded under a blanket of racism.”

Johnson spoke to a crowd at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, invited by its Office of Inclusion and Diversity for Black History Month.

“Nerves of steel, can you imagine what it was like to work as maybe one of the only females, and being African-American, and performing mathematics,” said Dr. Patricia Whitley-Williams, the associate dean of the Office of Inclusion and Diversity and the chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

“Not too many young black women at that time were able to find jobs, but after going through all of the bus boycotts and the lunch counters and everything, I was able to do that. And I was ready to mingle with others and do what I had to do,” said Johnson.

Johnson lives in Plainfield, but originally she’s from Savannah, Georgia, and credits her working-class parents and a special math teacher for their unwavering support and guidance.

“[They] didn’t have a lot of money, but they instilled in us a rigid work ethic and deemed education critically important to our household,” said Johnson. “My mentor, Mr. Walter B. Simmons, who was my 7th grade math teacher, taught me the love for mathematics.”

Johnson recently received a Visionary Award from radio station 1010 WINS, which flew her now 90-year-old mentor to New Jersey for the ceremony. She said, not enough young women of color are engaged in science, a message that resonated with young medical and engineering students like Kellin Slater.

“As a physics major, I was one of three girls in my program,” said Slater, a graduate of the Tandon School of Engineering at New York University. “So, it’s like really amazing to see someone who’s overcome this hump and has just seen success.”

“It gets hard, and sometimes it feels very lonely. And you need someone in your corner, to back you up, and say, ‘Hey, I believe in you, you can do this,'” said third year surgery resident at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Brianne Mitchell.

“The women featured in the ‘Hidden Figures’ movie are the shoulders she stood upon, for her contribution, and I stand upon her shoulders, now,” said third year resident at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Tori Gartmond.

Johnson’s message is that young women need to be mentored and nurtured, but to chart a path to the moon, like she did, you need to also be brilliant and determined.