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Katherine Johnson scholarship aids African American students pursuing math, science degrees at WVU

A new scholarship created as a tribute to NASA pioneer Katherine Johnson will benefit African American students studying math or science within West Virginia University’s Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.

Katherine Johnson

Inspired by the movie “Hidden Figures,” alumna Deborah Miller established the endowed Katherine Johnson Math Scholarship to honor the late mathematician, who died Feb. 24, 2020. The scholarship will be awarded to undergraduate students within the Eberly College, with first preference given to African American students in the Department of Mathematics. If no math students qualify, students pursuing degrees in physics, astronomy and statistics will be considered.

Miller’s $50,000 gift supports efforts by the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to boost scholarship aid for students from underrepresented groups as part of the WVU Foundation’s “We Are Stronger Together” fundraising initiative.

Miller said she wanted to show her gratitude for Johnson’s groundbreaking work and encourage students with a similar gift for numbers.

“Katherine is my hero,” Miller said. “I’m so glad there was such a woman who could inspire us.”

Johnson was a native of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, who graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and French from West Virginia State College (now University). She did graduate work at WVU, where she was among the first Black students to attend.

In 1953, Johnson went to work as a pool mathematician or “computer” for the Langley Research Center, part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (now NASA) in Hampton, Virginia. “Hidden Figures” highlights her work on the early space program, including computing the launch window for astronaut Alan Shepard’s 1961 Mercury mission. In 1962, computers were used for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth. According to Johnson, NASA officials called on her to verify the numbers generated by the computers. She also calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo flight to the moon.

“I am amazed with math whizzes,” Miller said. “I can’t come close. I just loved the movie ‘Hidden Figures’ and thought what a great person she was to jump in and help figure out some of these things nobody had ever done before.”

Johnson later worked on the space shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite and plans for a mission to Mars. She co-authored 26 scientific papers during her 33 years with NASA, before retiring in 1986. Among many honors received during her lifetime, she was awarded a Presidential Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the Eberly College in 2016 and was named to the University’s Academy of Distinguished Alumni in 2017.

“This scholarship honors Katherine Johnson’s legacy by ensuring future generations of African American students can follow in her footsteps,” Eberly College Dean Gregory Dunaway said. “Deborah Miller’s generosity will have a tangible impact on the future of individual students as well as on the fields of math and science writ large.”

Miller earned a bachelor’s degree in business management and law degree from WVU as a nontraditional student, following a career as a flight attendant. After four years in civil litigation, she led the planned giving program at the WVU Foundation for more than 20 years before retiring in 2015. Her work in philanthropy deepened her appreciation for the unique minds of mathematicians, scientists and engineers and highlighted the need for scholarships at WVU.

“Every scholarship is a battle won in the war to improve our world,” Miller said. “Every scholarship helps a student in a way that he or she can’t get from other sources. It’s always going to be important to enhance what happens at WVU.”

Miller lives in Preston County, not far from WVU’s main campus in Morgantown.

Miller’s scholarship gift was made through the Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University.