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STEM Celebrity Spotlight: Mary Jackson

By: Nishita Gudipati

Mary Jackson was born on April 9th, 1921 in Hampton, Virginia. Johnson’s path to her achievements was rather complicated. In 1942, she graduated from Hampton Institute with a dual degree in Math and Physical Sciences. She accepted her first job as a math teacher at a school for Black students. However, WWII hit Hampton hard forcing Mary to switch jobs to a receptionist at King Street USO club. After 3 more such career changes, Mary was finally able to land a job at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory segregated west section in 1951. This became the beginning of Mary’s path to success.

After 2 years in computing, Mary received an offer to work with engineer Czarnecki who also allowed her to pursue further education and become an engineer. However, with the Hampton school being segregated, Mary had to pave her way to get the same education as her peers. Rather than steering away, Mary gained special permission to study with her white peers and later joined them to become the first female Black engineer at NASA in 1958. 

Although the first few years were great for Mary as one of the only female and black aeronautical engineers, these times were still exceptionally difficult for women to build their careers. Promotions stopped coming and Mary began receiving barely any recognition for her work and rather asked to be grateful that as a woman she was even able to work. So, after 20 years of contribution to the study of airflow around aircraft, Mary took a demotion in 1979 to become the manager of the women's program at NASA. Here she ensured that new females entering the workforce received all the opportunities possible and contributed heavily to their successes. She then finally retired in 1985. 

Throughout her time Mary received many awards outlining her accomplishments. She received the Apollo Group Achievement Award and was named Langley’s Volunteer of the Year in 1976. She served as the chair of the United Way campaign and was a member of the National Technical Association which was one of the oldest African American organizations in the United States. Overall, Mary was an excellent scientist as well as a wonderful human being who paved the future for many incoming females especially those of color. She stands as an honorable example for many females who seek to pursue their dreams. 

Works Cited:

“Mary Jackson | Biography & Facts.” Britannica, 9 May 2024, Accessed 4 June 2024.

Shetterly, Margot Lee. “Portrait of Mary W. Jackson.” NASA, 27 June 2023, Accessed 4 June 2024.

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