Looking back, Missouri State alumnus Theodore Melfi remembered a line: We all get there together or we don’t get there at all.
Kevin Costner said those words as Al Harrison, a fictional character in “Hidden Figures,” the Academy Award-nominated movie that Melfi wrote and directed. The film is about three black women whose expertise in mathematics were vital to NASA at the dawn of the United States space program.
That was the early 1960s, a time when the Space Race with the Soviet Union ran parallel to the civil rights movement in the U.S.
In the cases of those three women – Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – those issues reached intersections at a time when NASA, composed primarily of white men, was ready to send a human being into space.
“It’s how a group of people – black, white, men and women – got together and achieved something great by pure willpower and putting their differences aside,” Melfi said. “Was it hard? Yes. Was it uncomfortable? Yes. But that’s what happens when people get together.”
Making the story come to life
Melfi graduated in 1994 with a degree in construction, drafting and design. His screenplay with Hollywood screenwriter Allison Schroeder was based on a book written by Margot Lee Shetterly in September 2016.
After reading Shetterly’s work, Melfi said, the story became one in which directors stop everything they’re doing and do the best they can to make it right.
“I was blown away,” Melfi said. “I couldn’t believe that we don’t know this story. I never knew there were women working in engineering and aeronautics at NASA in 1961 during the Space Race, and I sure didn’t know they were black women.”
An ongoing effort for equality
The issue of equal treatment for women in the workplace continues more than 50 years after the Space Race. It’s especially true for women working in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
In fact, a 2017 report from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics showed the degree to which women, minorities and people who have disabilities are underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce.
The data showed that women have attained balance with men in science and engineering education but not in employment.
Cynthia Morales-Bejarano, a junior physics major, is working to help improve that situation for students at Missouri State. She started Women in STEM, a student organization for women who want to have careers in the sciences.
Morales-Bejarano, now 28, started college when she was 18 and said a lot has changed in the last decade for women in the sciences. But there’s still plenty to do, which is why she took the initiative to start the organization.
“I felt like I wasn’t doing as well and maybe it was because I was a girl,” she said. “Maybe I really shouldn’t be in this class. All of my peers are men.
“My goal with having a club was if you have that internalized bias, to be able to reach out to other women to help you. To have women who are your peers, who are in your age group, to be like, ‘OK, if she can do it, I can do it too.'”
Inclusion is the key
Missouri State’s physics department stands out as one that values women in STEM fields, Morales-Bejarano said, noting that she doesn’t ever feel that she’s seen differently than male faculty members and students see one another.
That kind of inclusive environment is the key to the on-campus Women in STEM organization.
“We don’t only talk about women’s issues,” Morales-Bejarano said. “We have conversations with one another and we get to know one another. We want it to be about science. It just happens to be we also want to remind everyone that women should be considered as equals in the sciences.”
Achieving that equality starts from the ground up with organizations like the one at Missouri State, said Allison Nugent, a MSU physics alumna who is now director of neuroimaging research at the National Institute of Mental Health.
“A lot of the value of women in STEM organizations is really education,” Nugent said. “I think pulling girls into physics is one-half of the solution, but it’s also educating boys too that this isn’t something that’s unusual.”
“We put a human being in a tin can on top of a ballistic missile”
For Melfi, the result of telling a story about civil rights and women in STEM was a box office hit. “Hidden Figures” beat “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” the weekend of Jan. 6-8, 2017 with $22.8 million in ticket sales. In total, the film has earned more than $131 million in the United States.
It’s also been nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Motion Picture, Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Octavia Spencer) and Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay. Melfi’s name is attached to two of those nominations.
The journey of making the movie was a thrill, Melfi said.
“The biggest surprise for me was that we put a human being in a tin can on top of a ballistic missile and said, ‘We’re going to shoot you up there, and we think we can get you back down.'”
They succeeded, and three black female pioneers made it happen.