On Friday, March 17, more than 800 of our community members filled the LSU Student Union Theater to watch Hidden Figures and to promote girls and women in STEM. As a part of our Hidden Figures Revealed event co-hosted by the LSU College of Engineering, six inspiring women discussed the film following the screening and addressed questions about the state of women in minorities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.
Among the discussion panelists were Katherine Michele Sanders, granddaughter of Hidden Figures heroine (in real life) Katherine Johnson, Dr. Judy Wornat, dean of the LSU College of Engineering, and our own Dr. Cynthia Peterson, dean of the LSU College of Science.
We sat down with Dean Peterson to get her impressions and a recap of Hidden Figures Revealed.
College of Science: What were your impressions of the film Hidden Figures? What aspect of the film most resonated with you?
Cynthia Peterson: Watching this movie in the LSU Union Theater was an amazing shared experience. It was inspirational and something that I will never forget. Rather than the stilted audience response you might get at a commercial theater, we had an engaged audience that responded audibly and emotionally to the film. The movie was touching and challenging and inspiring, and all of that was augmented through the group experience and shared energy in the room.
There are many points in the film that resonated with me. Being confronted with the reality of race relations in the 60’s was disturbing. The fact that these three smart, confident and resourceful African American women accomplished so much in spite of these obstacles is powerful. Period. I mentioned during the panel discussion that a scene that sticks with me is the one where Mary Jackson confronted the judge with her appeal to take community college classes at an all-white high school. She asked him, “Which of the decisions that you make today will have an impact 100 years from now?"
College of Science: There is a scene in the movie where Katherine Johnson “thinks outside of the box” and decides to use an older mathematical theory to solve the re-entry and landing problem. This is a great example of how diversity, or different people with different experiences and a different understanding, can help us solve problems. How have you have seen diversity impact science?
Cynthia Peterson: I believe that scientific advances rely on “many people asking many questions.” That’s what I said in my TEDxLSU talk recently. My own lived experience has underscored this for me. My ideas about my own area of science — regulation of blood coagulation and inflammatory disease — have benefited tremendously over the years by my collaborations with folks from other disciplines. Having different “lenses” on a problem always helps. In the LSU College of Science, diversity is a central part of our strategic plan. We value diversity and recognize that when the synergy comes from many creative minds pushing the boundaries and challenging ideas, the product is so much more than the sum of the parts.
College of Science: At the beginning of the film, Katherine appears in a flashback at school. She is several years younger than her classmates and is asked to demonstrate the answer to a math question at the chalk board. She exhibited an understanding of math far beyond her years and her teacher recognized her talent and helped nurture that talent. What role can our schools (PK-12 and colleges) play in cultivating the next generation of talented women scientists?
Cynthia Peterson: This is a very good question. Education occurs both inside and outside the classroom. Our PK-12 schools and universities all recognize that. Helping girls and young women understand that science is “doing” is very important. For this, I think the opportunities provided for our students have to transcend the traditional classroom. Exposure to real-life scientists (#reallivingscientist, #actuallivingscientist), especially women in STEM, is important on many levels. Role models are critical, giving students confidence based on seeing that women scientists are approachable and are doing science because it is rewarding and fun.
I encourage our educators to partner with professional scientists in a variety of ways — for field trips, for panels, for “shadowing” opportunities, for summer research experiences, to see the workplace and to see women with a variety of responsibilities in the workplace.
College of Science: You are an inspiring female STEM leader at LSU, as dean of the LSU College of Science. What have you learned as a leader in STEM and academia that you'd most like to share with others?
Cynthia Peterson: What I have learned is to tell myself — “Just Do It!”— like the Nike slogan. This does not mean do everything! But it does mean to trust myself to rise to challenges and know that I can tackle what is before me. I have to prioritize the challenges that are most appealing, and then go for them. While I can’t do everything, it is important to pursue things that fit my interests and experience.
A faculty career was a challenging goal, and the hurdles in graduate school and postdoctoral training were there. I hardly remember those because I am so happy that I set my goal high and went for it. Being an academic scientist has rewarded me in so many different ways. As my career went on, I was faced with the challenge of taking on leadership roles as department chair and even dean. When reaching this crossroads, I paid attention to my passion and goals and in the end accepted these challenging news roles — again, I am really glad I did! The biggest rewards of my career have been in these leadership roles as I have helped faculty and students reach for their dreams.
One big lesson has been that “Just Do It” doesn’t mean "just do it alone." It is important to build a group of talented and dedicated people around you and to trust the outcomes. “Just Do It” to me also means that I can trust myself and move forward without having to know exactly how things are going to work out with my scientific career and my research projects. So don’t over-plan! Leave some room for flexibility and spontaneity.
College of Science: What was your favorite part of the LSU Hidden Figures Revealed event? What did you find most inspirational from the event? Are there any words/quotes, concepts or thoughts that have stuck with you since the event?
Cynthia Peterson: I loved being on the panel and meeting Katherine Johnson’s granddaughter! The Q&A after the film was so interesting and I learned a great deal from my fellow panelists. Probably the best of all was having several aspiring young women scientists come on stage to chat with us afterwards. That was great!
I have thought about the movie, the panel and the whole event “aura” many times since last Friday. And it always brings a smile to my face. I have reflected a lot on the importance of “firsts.” The confidence, dignity and self-respect of the three women depicted in Hidden Figures who were “firsts” as African American women in their positions, as well as many others, is a great example for all of us.
Watch the Hidden Figures Revealed panel discussion here, live-streamed from the event.
College of Science: Other than this event, what else are the LSU College of Science and the College of Engineering doing (or planning to do) to promote and better engage women in STEM fields?
Cynthia Peterson: Just last week the two colleges sponsored a workshop with outside experts who provided strategies for negotiations and managing challenging moments. This was targeted to graduate students, and both women and men were invited.
The College of Science also has a AAUW Start Smart Workshop coming up on April 3rd. This Is targeted to undergraduate women, focusing on marketing their worth based on their skills, experiences, performance, and qualifications.
We have organizations and conferences that we support for women in physics and women in math.
The College of Science has recently hired an assistant dean for diversity, Dr. Zakiya Wilson-Kennedy. She is spearheading all kinds of activities in addition to those listed above, and we are working together to attract support from granting agencies and from corporations that recognize the importance of attracting and keeping women in STEM fields.
Share your thoughts about Hidden Figures with us on social media using the hashtag #LSUHiddenFigures.