One Giant Leap for Womankind

The scarcity of minorities and women in science is what makes Dr. Christine Mann Darden's (pictured left) life so extraordinary. She is a pioneer and a leading expert in the phenomenon of sonic shockwaves, commonly called "sonic booms." They are caused by the force created by supersonic and hypersonic aircraft. Her ambition, talent, and persistence drove her to rise from a data analyst position to a top-level strategist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Dr. Darden's parents encouraged her to pursue a good education, so she studied hard and took her coursework seriously. Her first love was medicine, but all that changed when she took geometry. From that point on, she loved math and took advanced math classes. After graduating from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Hampton, Virginia, in 1967 with a B.S. in math and a minor in physics, she followed her father's advice and taught high school math. Teaching turned out to be a mere footnote in Darden's career. "I wanted to do something further in math, other than teaching, so I started taking classes at Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia. That ambition and drive would become Darden's trademark. She enjoyed being able to explain a physical situation with an equation and solve that equation for a tangible solution. In her words, she "had a knack for it."

While at Virginia State, she met Dr. Reuben McDaniels, head of the Virginia State University math department. He offered her a fellowship in aerosol physics so that she could pursue her master's degree there. He not only taught her classroom lessons, but life lessons as well. When a visiting professor noticed Darden's apparent disinterest, McDaniels told her, "You don't always get another chance to make a first impression on people." She went on to receive her M.S. in applied mathematics and began working for NASA.

At the time, the majority of the women engineers worked as mathematicians. Mathematicians were data analysts who did not have their own projects. Instead they supported the engineers who had projects of their own. Most mathematicians remained in their post for the rest of their careers with little opportunity for career advancement. "I had to fight a battle because I was hired as a mathematician," Darden says. "Typically, men who came in with the same degrees that I had were hired as engineers. They would be placed on engineering projects and would move on later," Darden continues.

One of Dr. Darden's colleagues, David Fetterman, helped jump-start her career by giving her an independent project. He gave her the research paper from which she developed her theory on sonic boom minimization. Darden began by developing a computer program that simulated sonic booms along with their effect on the aircraft and the environment.

Darden explains that sonic booms are the result of the molecular build-up from a much higher pressure on the inside of a supersonic vehicle and the smaller pressure on the outside. The "boom" is from the instantaneous change in pressure-- "like a balloon popping," she says.

She theorized that a supersonic plane with a more obtuse anterior and a more gradual second derivative would create an equivalent area distribution, thus reducing the pressure difference and, therefore, reducing the sonic boom. Supersonic flight would benefit commercial flights by greatly reducing flight times; but commercial supersonic aircraft currently have prohibitive costs, limited range (they are banned over U.S. land), and the noise level exceeds all airport limits.

Her work on sonic booms eventually turned into a dissertation at George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, D.C. Being a student at GWU was her first taste of integrated education. She was often the only woman and virtually the only African-American in her classes. Initially she felt "isolated" and "intimidated." The intimidation soon went away when Darden discovered that she had the necessary background and ability to do the work. The isolation left when others also recognized her merit. "When somebody sees you've done pretty well on the exams, they start inviting you to study together or to discuss problems," she said. Darden received her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in 1983 with a specialization in fluid mechanics (the study of the flow of gases and liquids).

That academic success would eventually lead Darden to head one of the key teams in NASA's Supersonic Transport Research Project. Now, she had to prove that the success of the computer model could be replicated in a real system. On 27 August 2003, the test flight of a modified F-5 plane provided confirmation for Darden's theory by successfully minimizing the sonic boom of a supersonic flight. This occurred while she served as a consultant to the joint Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Darden is currently a member of the Strategic Planning committee for the Langley Research Center. She helps oversee the center's direction, attends top-level meetings, and is responsible for strategic documents. Her future plans include "delivering something every year that excites people enough to keep them going."

In the meantime, Darden believes in helping others to reach their potential. She has presented many talks at schools and conducted labs and classes at Hampton University through her sorority--Alpha Kappa Alpha. She encourages others to take as many high-level math and science courses as possible to build those skills and prepare for future opportunities. She stresses that "you can do something if you're willing to work for it."

Careers for women--especially minority women--are scarce in science and engineering. Women account for 22.8% of the total science and engineering workforce (9.1% for engineering alone) according to the National Science Foundation's report, "Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2000." The same report says that minorities account for 17.2% of the total science and engineering workforce (17.3% for engineering alone). Despite the discrepancies, those ratios have about doubled since 1980.

Clinton Parks is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and can be reached by email at

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