As we gear up for Hidden Figures Revealed: Realizing the Dream, a panel discussion and screening of the 20th Century Fox movie production Hidden Figures in the LSU Union Theater on March 17, we are bringing you the voices and faces of outstanding women in STEM fields at LSU and beyond! We are engaging in a larger conversation about it's like to be a woman, and a woman of color, in science, technology, engineering and math.
This week, we sat down with Dr. Kamili Shaw, an engineer at NASA's Stennis Space Center and an outstanding woman in STEM. Dr. Shaw is passionate about both space materials and a culture that encourages women and minorities to realize their dreams in STEM careers. Shaw will be at our Hidden Figures Revealed event to speak to young women about science, technology, engineering and math!
Shaw grew up in Maryland, where she attended the University of Maryland Baltimore County on a scholarship supporting African Americans pursing Ph.D. degrees in STEM fields. There, she earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in mechanical engineering. She earned her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at John Hopkins University, where she specialized in studying materials. She worked with thin films and microelectromechanical systems, or “little machines” as Shaw calls them. For several years after her Ph.D., she studied the strength of platinum alloys in Cape Town, South Africa, with a focus on creating stronger and more scratch-resistant allows for use in jewelry and other products.
A few years later, Shaw made her way to NASA back in the U.S., where she started working on various flight projects. As a materials engineer, she recommended, tested and approved materials for various NASA equipment and space flight missions, including the Hubble Space Telescope. For Shaw, working on materials for the Hubble Space Telescope, specifically on materials for the tools astronauts would use to repair the satellite, has been one of the most exciting accomplishments of her career so far.
“The Hubble mission was exciting because it involved science, helping us look further out into the universe; it involved astronauts, because astronauts had to service the telescope in space; and it was a giant engineering challenge to repair the satellite in space,” Shaw said. “I was able to work on that mission for several years before the mission launched, so I saw the whole process. It was very exciting.”
Over time, Shaw transitioned from her career in materials engineering to a career in safety at NASA. Today, Shaw is the lead of the Safety, Quality, and Management Systems Division at NASA's Stennis Space Center. Shaw works to improve and maintain a culture of safety at Stennis, or “how people act when no one is watching, like how you automatically put on your seatbelt,” Shaw said. “That’s what we are trying to do here, making safety a part of how we do business.”
Throughout her undergraduate and graduate education, Shaw was also active in various organizations promoting women and minorities in STEM fields. Below, we've asked her a few questions about her experiences as a female engineer, how she has realized her dreams and what advice she has for young women pursuing STEM careers.
College of Science: What did you think of the film Hidden Figures? What did you most identify with in the film?
Shaw: I thought it was a high quality movie. Times are definitely a lot different than they used to be. What stood out to me in the film was Katherine Johnson’s persistence. [Katherine Johnson, the protagonist in the film Hidden Figures, was a computer at NASA before computers were machines. She produced calculations and equations vital to getting the earliest astronauts safely into space, to the moon, and back again]. Katherine was persistent not necessarily for her own advancement, but because she knew what she needed to solve the problems she was given, and she was persistent in pushing to get the information she needed to solve those problems.
Another aspect portrayed in the film that inspired me was Dorothy Vaughn’s foresight to realize that human computers were on their way out and that if her team didn’t learn something new, like how to program computers to perform advanced calculations, they were going to be obsolete. The fact that she snuck into the room containing the new IBM computing machine and ensured that her team was ready to take on the challenge is pretty amazing. I don’t know if most people understand how amazing that is. And that story is just as relevant today, because our technology is changing so quickly. We aren’t in a constant learning mode; we can still find ourselves obsolete.
After my undergraduate training, I thought I was going to be a mechanical engineer for the rest of my life. That didn’t happen. It wasn’t necessarily because I couldn’t do that, but rather because I’ve wanted to do many different things. Every time I’ve changed positions, I’ve had to learn something new, like Vaughn did. I’ve been told I’m a professional student, which I take as a compliment! It means I have the ability to go into new situations and learn what I need to know, what I don’t know and what I need to ask to find out. Just being comfortable learning new things, like new software that you need to know for your job, is really helpful.
College of Science: What has your own experience as a female engineer at NASA been like?
Shaw: I would definitely say that as I’ve progressed, it’s gotten better and better. I wouldn’t say necessarily that it was hard being a woman when I set out to become an engineer, but certainly in college we did not make up half the class. Different areas of engineering have different demographics, and mechanical engineering is not one where there’s a high percentage of women. When I was younger, I noticed that gap more. But over time, you become more comfortable being in teams with men, asserting yourself and showing others your value.
As women and minorities in STEM fields, I think we are especially uncomfortable asking questions and letting others know what we don’t know. But over time, the more comfortable I became with asking questions, the easier it became. Once you say, “I need help” or “I don’t know,” you are on the path to getting help and to knowing. I think much of the struggle of being a female or minority in STEM is external, but much is also internal. I think it’s a matter of managing the current situation, hoping it will get better one day, but living within the current situation and making sure we get what we need to move forward.
At NASA, I don’t feel that I’m being held back as a woman at this point. I’ve generally felt supported in my career in STEM, and where I didn’t, I moved on. As women and minorities in STEM, I think we have to do what we can to advance our own careers and to reach out to others. That’s what we can do.
College of Science: What advice do you have for other young women following your path in STEM?
Shaw: Don’t follow my path, follow your own path! A career in a STEM field is great if you want to have a challenging career where you get to do lots of different things, or even if you want to do the same thing forever and still find fulfillment. It can be very rewarding. In engineering, you are basically solving problems. If that makes you excited, then engineering is definitely for you.
People often think they need to be whizzes in math and science to pursue a STEM career, but that isn’t true. Being interested and excited about how things are, or how things work, is I think even more important to being successful in a career in science or engineering. You can learn how to learn along the way. But don’t put yourself outside of STEM because you aren’t getting A+ grades in your science and math classes.
Join the College of Science on March 17th to watch Hidden Figures, with scientists! Showtime is 5 p.m. in the LSU Student Union Theater. RSVP here.
FRIDAY, MARCH 17 | LSU UNION THEATER
- 3:45 p.m. Meet and greet with panelists
- 4:30 p.m. Theater doors open
- 5 p.m. Movie Screening
- 7 p.m. Panel discussion
Open to the public!