“By the time I was 12, I was challenging every boy in our neighborhood at running, jumping, and everything related.” -Wilma Rudolph
(1940-1994) Wilma Rudolph was an Olympic track athlete who became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field. Ms. Rudolph was born prematurely with problems with her left leg, and consequently, she wore a brace. With determination and physical therapy, she overcame her physical disabilities and became an Olympic star. Ms. Rudolph grew up in the South during days of segregation and attended an African-American high school where she played on the basketball team. As a naturally gifted runner, she was later recruited for the track team. While still in high school, Ms. Rudolph qualified for the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. She became the youngest member of the U.S. team at the age of 16 and proceeded to win the bronze medal in the sprint relay event. Ms. Rudolph succumbed to brain cancer in 1994 at the young age of 54.
I have a really bad cold right now, and it may be because I always get sick on airplanes. But, I didn’t mind getting sick because it was for an awesome trip to Chicago. In Chicago I moderated a panel at the Society for Women Engineers conference. The panel was called NASA Engineers Who ROCK (the panel was organized by NASA Glenn in Cleveland, you see, home of Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame so I think they couldn’t resist referring to rock somehow!). But the panel really did rock. We had four cool NASA women: Olga Dominguez (Assistant Administrator for NASA’s Office of Strategic Infrastructure from NASA Headquarters), Junilla Applin (Assisstant Director of Management Systems Office, Engineering Directorate, NASA Langley Research Center), Julie Schonfeld (Lead Engineer for Science Ground Systems, NASA Ames Research Center), and Karin Bodnar (Electrical Engineer in the Power Systems Development Branch of the NASA Glenn Research Center).
It was the last panel on a Friday afternoon, but we had a lot of people there. Junilla talked about a life-changing experience when she was a child and she was forced to sit in the back of the bus because of her skin color. That experience made her mad. Really mad, and it made her want to do things that she weren’t typical, like be an engineer. Olga talked about some of the more subtle forms of bias that sometimes are even more difficult to overcome, like your opinion being dismissed and then a male saying something really similar and that comment being embraced. Those are the kind of things a lot of us face in our field. Julie talked about how being a female was an advantage in some ways. She often was the only female, or one of a handful, in her engineering classes and therefore she was noticed. It made her stand out. Karin is an early career engineer at NASA and it was great to hear the perspective of someone recently graduating from college. She said she feels that people at NASA are really working to mentor her and she truly part of the team. That was so great to hear since we still have way too few employees from younger generations at NASA.
And, I wanted to make sure I gave a shout-out to a great NASA woman, Stephanie Schierholz, who was featured on Forbes.com. Check out the article at the following link: