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'Hidden Figures' author encourages Utah kids to dream big

SALT LAKE CITY — When Margot Lee Shetterly was writing 'Hidden Figures," she had little idea it would become such an inspirational phenomenon — both in print and on the silver screen — to a generation of impressionable young people who today dream of one day becoming the next great mathematician.

"There was no way to know that so many people would be interested in it," the Hampton, Virginia, native explained Friday. Speaking on the University of Utah campus Friday, Shetterly and former NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan engaged with a group of students from recently renamed Mary W. Jackson Elementary School located on Salt Lake City's west side. Both were invited by the University of Utah MUSE Project and were the keynote guests for the project's theme year event on empowerment.

“Hidden Figures," a best-selling book and the source for the award-winning movie released in 2016, told the story of a group of African-American women who served as mathematicians and engineers for NASA in the 1950s and 1960s. As depicted in the book and the film, the women made outstanding contributions to the success of America’s space program despite institutional racial prejudice and gender discrimination.

Sixth-grader Justice Porter, 12, said the ladies in the book served as role models for women and girls who find themselves in situations involving discrimination.

"It's important to share your feelings about (discrimination) and if someone is being rude, stand up for yourself," she said. Regarding the recent decision to change the name of her school from Andrew Jackson Elementary to Mary Jackson Elementary, she had always thought it was 'weird' that the school was named after a historical figure who was a slave owner, she said.

"Especially because our school is full of different races and cultures, so it didn't sync with our school," Porter said. "When we changed the name, I thought it was a small change, but it made a big difference."

Classmate Olivia Egbert, 12, said meeting Shetterly and Stofan was an inspirational experience that she'll remember fondly for years to come.

"(Stofan) told us that she wants to see us go to Mars because we're the future generation that will be the first to walk on another planet," Egbert said. "Shetterly) signed my book and she said, 'Be the next generation and thanks for supporting the women in the story and in history.'"

"It really made me look up to her (even) more and gave me more inspiration for what I should be doing and how I should be helping people," she said. About the name change, she said the new moniker now offers a better representation of the students in the school than under its previous namesake.

"It really shows the diversity that we have," Egbert said. "The name we use to have (Andrew Jackson) didn't really show diversity or who the people are in the school. Mary Jackson really shows the (variety of) people (who are) in the school."

In explaining how she came to write the book, Shetterly noted that her father was an engineer at NASA, and she grew up in Virginia near the facility where the “Hidden Figures” scientists worked for many years.

"I was intrinsically interested in this story because my dad worked at NASA, so I knew a lot of these women growing up," she said. "So I was in many ways writing the book I wanted to read. For many reasons, the book has 'spoken' to a lot of people in a time with a message they were looking for."

Shetterly’s book was the primary text for the MUSE empowerment theme, and the project has distributed hundreds of free copies to U. students, explained MUSE Project Director Mark Matheson. During their keynote presentation, Shetterly and Stofan reflected on the story in "Hidden Figures" as an example of personal empowerment and achievement, and discussed the impact of encouraging women and other underrepresented people in STEM fields today.

"Telling this story is critically important so that all girls — girls of every color — think that women have always been doing this and making a difference," Stofan said. "It's important to tell these stories for girls to have someone who looks like them (and) to know that people like them have already blazed a trail. It makes you say, "If she could do it, then I could do it too.'"

Stofan is a professor and researcher who served as NASA’s chief scientist from 2013 to 2017 when she was the principal adviser to the agency's top administrator on programs and strategic planning. Before ascending to chief scientist at NASA, she held senior positions at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and New Millennium Program.

Stofan is also an honorary professor at University College London and an outspoken champion of young women and people of color who aspire to careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

"What was so powerful about this (experience) was seeing my students just be so inspired and think that they can go out and do anything they want and be empowered," said Jana Edward, principal at Mary Jackson Elementary. "I definitely think it will give them the inspiration to consider multiple careers."