Hidden Figures

Katherine Johnson sits at her desk at NASA in 1966.

In honor of WVU alumna Katherine Johnson, a new scholarship has been created to aid African American students pursuing math- or science-related degrees within the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.

“I thought there would already be more scholarships related to Katherine Johnson and mathematics, but there wasn’t,” said Deborah Miller, the alumna who established the Katherine Johnson Math Scholarship.

The $50,000 gift is intended to benefit African American students and aims to boost representation from an underrepresented group.

The scholarship will begin to be awarded to students during the 2021-22 academic year. Students pursuing a degree in mathematics will receive first priority, followed by physics, astronomy and statistics students.

“I’m just the checkbook, the real honor is Katherine,” Miller said.

Miller said she was inspired to create the scholarship from the 2016 biographical drama film adaptation of “Hidden Figures,” a novel written by Margot Lee Shetterly.

She was happy that Shetterly didn’t let Johnson and all the other female and African American NASA employees go unnamed. Miller said she doesn’t want the legacy of Johnson to be just another asterisk on a page.

Johnson accomplished a lot for a woman of her time and even more for being an African American woman. Johnson successfully calculated orbital mechanics, which were crucial to the first U.S.-crewed space flights.

Following racial injustice in the workplace, Miller said that Johnson wasn’t bitter; she knew her purpose and kept pushing through. Johnson would later be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“Who from White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, could do that? Katherine could,” Miller said.

To continue encouraging young students to enter the math and science fields, Miller said that she hopes more scholarships geared toward aiding diverse students are created.

Like Johnson was told, Miller wants students to keep working hard and to persevere.

“I have a lot of respect for students in science and math majors,” Miller said. “I couldn’t do it myself.”