Dajae Williams is not your average NASA engineer. She never dreamt of working for NASA because she had math phobia as a child. Her high school teacher mistakenly placed her in an honors geometry class and today, she is a quality control engineer for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA. Her team helped to construct the ground support equipment for Sentinel-6.
Sentinel -6 is the first in a line of spacecraft that launched on November 21 to monitor our oceans.
Growing up, Williams thought she will be a music producer or a professional basketball player. She unearthed her love for math and science when she enrolled in a desegregation program that takes students from disenfranchised schools to schools with proper structures and in-depth curriculums.
During the program, Williams found it hard to adjust to the new structures and her seventh-grade teacher tutored her after school till she got her first perfect score in the class.
Her mother, seeing how well she did, encouraged her to pursue the STEM field as it lacks diversity.
“My mom convinced me to go into a STEM field,” she told WKRG. “She saw that I was getting good at math and science, so she was like, ‘Why don’t you explore this. There’s not a lot of women. There’s not a lot of black people in this field. See what you can do. See if you can make a change.’”
Even though Williams went to Missouri University of Science and Technology on a basketball scholarship, she still pursued her STEM ambitions. Williams then joined the National Society of Black Engineers to network before getting the chance to intern at John Deere and Toyota. She then got a job at Apple in California before eventually landing at NASA as a quality control engineer.
Today, the rocket scientist wants to inspire young people who were once like her to develop a love for math and science through rap. She got that idea after attending a seminar on Hip-Hop vs. Politics. “I asked a question on a panel, how do we use hip-hop as a platform to get more minorities into STEM,” Williams said.
Receiving no answer, she thought of a project she did her sophomore year at S&T where she had to produce a song about the equation it takes to solve the quadratic formula. “I was like, that’s it. I can use the hip-hop music that people love so much to help people understand topics more,” Williams was quoted by KSDK.
The St. Louis native has so far released a couple of songs: ‘Quadratic Formula’, ‘Academic Excellence – Dr. Mae Jemison’ and ‘Unit Conversions’, and she has been contacted by schools and teachers for use in their classrooms.
“Sometimes education can be, at least in math and science, it can be a very traumatic experience…especially for kids of color. We’re not necessarily taught in the language that we learned growing up,” she explained to St. Louis Public Radio.
“Your teachers don’t look like you, they don’t understand where you’re coming from. So I’ve seen some pretty traumatic things, and I also have experienced some trauma myself in education, so to see the kids dancing and laughing when it comes to education…that is honestly what brings me joy.”
The unconventional engineer turned HipHopEd has advised young people to pursue their dreams regardless of their present circumstances.
“Put yourself out there. Apply for things that you don’t think you qualify for. Take classes that you don’t think you’re smart enough for. It will take you further than you realize.”