By Katie Quinlisk
Follow columnist Katie Quinlisk as she sheds light on Fordham’s female history, one woman’s experience at a time.
Through Hidden Figures was snubbed in all three Oscar categories in which it was nominated last Sunday evening, the real black female scientists behind NASA’s Jim Crow era Friendship 7 Mission that the film celebrates were not.
Hidden Figures’ actresses Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer introduced the nominees for Best Documentary Feature and were joined by retired NASA physicist and mathematician Katherine Johnson, escorted by current NASA astronaut Yvonne Cagle. The audience honored Johnson, whom Henson played, with a standing ovation as Henson introduced Johnson as “a true NASA and American hero.” It was a surreal Oscars moment to watch Johnson, the woman who so beautifully told her story on screen, and Cagle stand beside one another to receive long deserved public recognition.
Cagle, a Fordham partner, visiting professor and honorary degree recipient, describes her success as the legacy of women like Katherine Johnson, who fought for her right to break into previously white-male-dominated fields. When NBC News asked Cagle about the obstacles she faced as a young black female astronaut last April, she stated, “There really were not any obstacles or challenges. By the time I came along, I was very fortunate to follow many women. I flew, I believe as the 41st woman from NASA. So the women before me had already pounded the pavement flat and really had made opportunities easier for those of us that followed.”
And those women paved quite a legacy. Cagle works as a physician and astronaut for NASA, and her research concentrates on improving human health in space travel as well as innovating space travel biomedical technology. Cagle graduated from San Francisco State University in 1981 with a achelor’s degree in biochemistry, after which she moved on to the University of Washington to receive her Doctorate in Medicine in 1985. In 1988, Cagle became certified in Aerospace Medicine at the School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas.
After receiving her aerospace medicine certification in 1988, Cagle served as a flight surgeon on various NASA missions and an occupational physician for NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas from 1994 to 1996. She has served on three flights into space, including her service as an Air Force medical liaison officer on the STS-30 Atlantis shuttle mission in 1989.
However, Cagle’s contribution goes beyond her own missions with NASA. Her research has made significant contributions in academia. Cagle is a consulting professor for Stanford University and a clinical assistant professor at the University of Texas. She contributes research to the Longitudinal Study on astronaut health where she serves as a consultant for space telemedicine.
Cagle also worked with Google as the Strategic Relationships Manager, and it was in Silicon Valley where Cagle first met and collaborated with Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Services Dean Debra McPhee. McPhee and Cagle worked together to create a partnership at Fordham once McPhee became GSS’s dean in 2013. Together, they introduced the Interdisciplinary Collaborative on Health, Environment and Human Performance in 2014. The program’s goal is to join Cagle’s research, resources and experience with Fordham’s interdisciplinary efforts to promote progress and innovation in the fields of medicine, psychology, environmental science, education and technology.
Cagle’s projects, which include plans to execute a NASA Mars mission and pursue human settlement in space, require research across many disciplines and Fordham in particular appreciates Cagle’s cross-disciplinary needs. Cagle now serves as a visiting professor, and she was awarded an honorary Ph.D. in humanities from Fordham in 2014 for her widespread contributions to health, aero science and technology.
Many fans of Hidden Figures expressed outrage at the fact that they had never heard the stories of Katherine Johnson and the other black female brains behind NASA’s Friendship 7. Even the film’s Janelle Monae admitted to crying when she first read the script explaining, “I was really upset because, as an African-American young woman, I had no idea who Mary Jackson was, who Dorothy Vaughan was, who Katherine Johnson was, who the colored ‘computers’ were. I had no idea.”
Though Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan’s stories went untold for decades, their work was by no means forgotten during that time. The walls of race and gender that they demolished cleared the way for women in STEM like Yvonne Cagle. Hollywood and 20th Century Fox brought their story to the big screen, but Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan’s legacy stands on its own merit.