On 26th January this year I had the pleasure of watching 20th Century Fox’s new film Hidden Figures with a group of school girls from Manchester. This was an exclusive premiere screening organised by the Manchester United Foundation, preceded by a panel Q&A which allowed the girls to find out what it is really like to work in a STEM career.   My fellow panel members were Ginny Buckley (broadcaster and motoring journalist), Anita Bernie (Director of Spacecraft Platforms at Surrey Satellite Technology), Hazel Macnamara (Audit Partner at PWC) Elspeth Finch (Chair of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Innovators’ Network) and Rachel Riley (mathematician and presenter of Countdown).

The film is truly inspirational, based on the true story of a group of African American women who worked for NASA as “human computers,” calculating by hand the complex modelling and trajectory equations that allowed space heroes like Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard, and John Glenn to travel safely into space.  There’s a really great moment halfway into the film when head NASA engineer Paul Stafford refuses Katherine Johnson’s request to attend a technical meeting about John Glenn’s upcoming mission to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Stafford’s response is dismissive—”There’s no protocol for women attending.” Johnson replies, “There’s no protocol for a man circling Earth either, sir.”

Space travel was one of the things that inspired my engineering career. As a child I remember watching Apollo 11’s moon landing with my family. I had so many questions; how did it happen? How did the astronauts get there? I also remember my dad calling me outside because Concorde was going to fly overhead. He explained that we might not see it but we could hear the sonic boom. When I asked him what a sonic boom was he told me to look it up in the encyclopaedia. I was an extremely curious child and I was often asking questions that people couldn’t answer, so I looked for the answers myself.  This set me up for a career searching for answers.

My dad ran a garage so I was also very practical and used to help him out regularly. His influence, combined with my natural curiosity, kept me engaged right throughout secondary school, and I became the first person in my family to go to university.  I read Mechanical Engineering at Cardiff University and was sponsored to do this by Rolls Royce as an Undergraduate Apprenticeship. This was a great way to learn the theoretical aspects whilst also applying them in the workplace – and being paid!

These days it’s really not unusual to see women and men working equally in engineering roles and women are making it to the very top of their professions.  There are so many exciting roles available in engineering – my own career has enabled me to travel the world and work in friendly teams with some truly amazing people.  Engineers change the world for the better and it’s brilliant to be part of that!

You can watch a video of the event here. Hidden Figures will be released in the UK on Digital HD on 19 June 2017 and on Blu-Ray and DVD on 3 July 2017. For further information on release dates and how to watch, visit Fox Movies.

Karen Holford

Karen Holford

Professor Karen Holford FREng FLSW is Deputy Vice Chancellor at Cardiff University.
Karen Holford

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