AMPAS, NASA Talk Science, Movies and Diversity at SIGGRAPH

“The bias starts early. This is where the media can play a role," says NASA JPL scientist.
Courtesy of John Fujii

The annual CG confab SIGGRAPH opened Sunday with an inspiring discussion about science, movies and diversity during a Hidden Figures session hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Science and Technology Council in collaboration with NASA.

“I wish there were more little girls here today,” said SciTech Council member Beverly Wood, who moderated the session at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

The panel featured a trio of distinguished women from NASA JPL: Tracy D. Drain, flight systems engineer and deputy chief engineer of the Juno mission; Amy Mainzer, senior research scientist; and Powtawche Valerino, navigation engineer. They were joined by Hidden Figures’ Oscar-nominated screenwriter Allison Schroeder, cinematographer Mandy Walker and VFX supervisor Chris LeDoux.

Regarding the telling of the Hidden Figures story of three African-American women who played critical roles at NASA in the early days of the space program, Schroeder said, "We stuck to the truth as close as possible, [showing how they] rose above the sexism and racism." The speakers urged more diversity in math and science fields and to work to end stereotypes that suggest otherwise.

“The bias starts early,” admitted Mainzer, adding, “This is where the media can play a role. You are planting seeds, and you never know where they are going to go.”

Valerino admitted that when she was growing up, “It wasn’t cool to be a nerd. ... If you showed an interest in science or math, a lot of time, you really had to hide it. Unfortunately, our society doesn’t support the notion that everyone can be good at math.”

The women of NASA JPL — who described their work and the trajectories of their careers from curious students to scientists — said the release of Hidden Figures helped to expand the dialogue.

“I have always loved talking to children, especially, and I love having children see role models,” said Drain. “I have done a lot of speaking, but after the movie, there’s been much higher interest in reaching broader audiences.”

The speakers from Hollywood discussed the making of Hidden Figures and how the story inspired them. “I still cry every time I see it,” said Walker. “They were so brave and amazing geniuses. ... [As a cinematographer] I have been told ‘women don’t do that job.’ I ignored it, because that was my passion."

Added Schroeder: ”I was told I couldn’t work in the business. Don’t listen.”