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A Hidden Figure From North Carolina

Christine Darden in 1975

The book and film “Hidden Figures” tells the story of African-American women at NASA in the 1960s who worked as human computers and helped to open outer space to astronauts. And North Carolina has its own “hidden figure” to claim: Christine Darden.

Darden was born in Monroe, N.C. and started as a human computer at NASA in 1967. She had a 40-year career there and helped to develop a sonic boom research program. She and two of her NASA peers were recently nominated for a Congressional Gold Medal for their contributions to space exploration.

The retired NASA aerospace engineer and mathematician talks to host Frank Stasio about her career, how she broke barriers in the math and engineering worlds and about her upbringing in North Carolina. Darden will talk about her life and career at Durham Technical Community College on Wednesday, Nov. 14 at 3:30 p.m.


Darden on gender disparities:

I was sort of a tomboy growing up. I helped my dad change tires on cars. I helped him cut the grass. I fixed my bicycle with a coat hanger and things like that. So I guess I always had the attitude: if I'm physically not strong enough to do a job, you can say a female can't do it. But if that's not the issue, then don't tell me what I can and cannot do just because I'm a female.

On her personal mantra P to the fourth power:

Perceive of myself in the job I want. Plan what it is you have to do or what experiences you need to get to that job. Prepare yourself — and that's working your plan. And fourth is persist, because you will run into problems. 

How she moved from the computer pool at NASA to the engineering section:

I had decided I would rather go back to teaching than to spend my entire career doing what I was doing. And so I went to a director who was two or three levels up … I said: I'd like to ask a question. Why is it that a male and a female coming here with identical backgrounds are assigned to such different positions? The male is put into an engineering section where he does his own research ... The females are pretty much put into the computer pool where they support the engineer ... He looked at me, and he said: Well nobody's ever asked that question before. And I said: Well I'm asking it now ... In a couple of weeks I was promoted, and I was transferred to an engineering section. So it was a risk I took, and I knew I could have been fired for doing it, but it paid off.

Amanda Magnus is the executive producer of Embodied, a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She has also worked on other WUNC shows including Tested and CREEP.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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