Katherine Johnson, NASA archives

The Katherine Johnson Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics

The Katherine Johnson Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics at Trinity recognizes high achievement among Trinity students who major in math or science.  Named for the renowned NASA Mathematician who was one of a small group of African American women providing the essential math calculations necessary for early space exploration, the Johnson Award aims to inspire new generations of women of color to emulate her example of intellectual excellence and creativity, resilience in times of challenge and integrity in the execution of her responsibilities.

The Johnson Awards are scholarships for students chosen by the STEM faculty for their outstanding academic performance and potential in math and science.  One award each is available for a senior, a junior, a sophomore and a first-year student.  Trinity’s President will announce the awards each year at the fall Cap and Gown Convocation. Trinity is grateful to Jurate Kazickas, Class of 1964, for establishing this award.

Katherine Johnson graduated from historically Black West Virginia State College in 1937 where she earned highest honors in Mathematics and French.  At that time, public schools as well as most universities were segregated, and she started her career teaching in a Black public school in Virginia.  In 1940, after a Supreme Court ruling, West Virginia integrated graduate programs in state colleges, and the governor invited Ms. Johnson as one of three Black students (and the only woman) to integrate the graduate school at the flagship West Virginia University.

In 1952, by then married and raising three daughters, Ms. Johnson took a position in computing with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Agency).  In those days, before digital computers, human mathematicians working at the agency were called “computers” and a small cadre of Black women computers provided the deep analysis of data that supported the space program.  These women, including Ms. Johnson, were portrayed in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures later made into an Oscar-nominated movie starring Taraji P. Henson as Ms. Johnson, along with Octavia Spencer portraying the legendary NASA supervisor Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monae as NASA engineer Mary Jackson.

Katherine Johnson became so invaluable to the early NASA space program that astronauts like Alan Shepard and John Glenn insisted that she verify the critical data about the launch windows and flight trajectories coming out of digital computers before they took their historic first space flights.  She went on to break numerous barriers of race and gender at NASA including being the first woman ever named as an author or co-author of an agency report.

Ms. Johnson retired in 1986 after serving 33 years with NASA, and she died on February 24, 2020.  Her legacy lives on in the way her example inspires new generations of young African American women to pursue excellence in Mathematics and science, and to be unafraid to break barriers for women and people of color.