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'Hidden No More': Encouraging Girls To Pursue STEM


In the nonfiction book and movie "Hidden Figures," three African-American women mathematicians defy the odds by going to work for NASA in the early '60s.


KEVIN COSTNER: (As Al Harrison) You think you can find me the Frenet frame for this data using the Gram-Schmidt...

TARAJI P HENSON: (As Katherine Johnson) Orthogonalization algorithm? Yes, sir. I prefer it over Euclidean coordinates.

BLOCK: "Hidden Figures" ended up being screened at more than 100 U.S. embassies around the world, says State Department official Stacy White.

STACY WHITE: It so caught the imagination of people that we at the State Department have been doing additional programming and exchanges based on that.

BLOCK: Exchanges like a program they're calling Hidden No More, which brought 48 women in science and technology fields to the U.S. from countries all over the world. They include an aerospace engineer, a director of a coding school, an executive at a robotics institute and our next guest, Persis Mbangsi. She's a chemical engineer who works at ALUCAM, an aluminum plant in Cameroon. We reached her in California. That's the last stop on her U.S. tour.

BLOCK: Ms. Mbangsi, welcome to the program.

PERSIS MBANGSI: Thank you so much for having me.

BLOCK: How unusual is it for you as a woman to have the kind of job that you have in Cameroon?

MBANGSI: It is very, very unusual because ALUCAM is as almost 63 years now. And I'm the first female leader. And in my country, you have a little of barriers like cultural barriers. You have funding barriers. You have language barriers because it's a bilingual country. We speak both English and French. So you have all these challenges in front of you. And I say I'm blessed and privileged because I actually could conquer most of those barriers. In the field, even in the plants, you need to see me on a typical day (laughter).

BLOCK: Yeah?

MBANGSI: I'm fully dressed with my boots and my hat and my mask because you have all this pollution, noise and everything. So it's really, really, really challenging. And most people, when I even tell them I'm a leader in the fields, are like, really? What are you doing there (laughter)?

BLOCK: So when you watched the film "Hidden Figures," was part of you feeling, I can totally understand what those women must have been going through back then?

MBANGSI: Honestly, I cried (laughter).

BLOCK: Really?

MBANGSI: I cried because I could see myself in mostly every part of the movie because I had the same experience that she had. Like, in the plants, there was no toilet for women. And so I had to actually learn to control myself to make sure that I can only use the toilet when I'm out of the plant.

BLOCK: Oh, my goodness.

MBANGSI: But the most important thing that actually - in my experience - and I also see in the movie - is the mentoring part. And being the only woman in a room is so tough. But you have to actually show how strong you are. So in the movie, I could just relate in every single step of the way.

BLOCK: You mentioned that you cried during the movie. What was it about watching the movie that made you cry?

MBANGSI: Honestly, at that moment, I really didn't feel alone anymore because, you know, being in a male-dominated area, sometimes, I actually tend to feel like I'm alone in this whole world. I'm alone in this. But actually seeing what she went through, it's like, you know, Persis, you're not alone in this. She has gone through this many years ago, and she made it.

BLOCK: Who was your role model as you were growing up? Who was it who convinced you that you could do this, you could pursue a career in sciences?

MBANGSI: And that's where I'm very, very blessed because I have wonderful parents. And they always have this vision of - you can just be the best you can be. Like, pushing so many times. Even when I got into engineering, I wanted to quit. Like, I would call some nights. And I'm like, you know, I really can't do this. It's tough. And just tell me something. And they'd be like, Persis, just do your best. And I realized that in that best, I actually made it.

BLOCK: That's Persis Mbangsi. She's a chemical engineer from Cameroon, and she's taken part in a State Department program that brought in women from around the world who are in science and technology fields. Ms. Mbangsi, thanks so much for talking with us.

MBANGSI: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 31, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
In a previous version of the Web introduction to this story, we gave Persis Mbangsi's first name as Yefon. That is the name on her passport as provided to NPR by the State Department, but she prefers to go by Persis.