February is a great time to celebrate Black scientists who changed the world—and those transforming science right now.
I talked about Black History Month with Amir Gilmore. He’s a professor and associate dean in the College of Education at Washington State University.
“There are so many things that Black people have created that we just don’t think about,” he said. “So, when I think about Black History Month, it gives me joy that other people made these inventions. Where would we be without refrigerated trucks or stoplights? Where would we be without telephone technology? I’m thankful that Black people thought about what the world needed and provided those things.”
Joy is a major theme in Gilmore’s work. He told me joy is a way to connect with others by sharing who you are—especially the things that delight you or inspire wonder and curiosity.
“Throughout all the terrible experiences in Black history, Black people have always found joy within themselves, their culture, their history—even in the most oppressive situations or states,” Gilmore said. “So, joy is something that’s part of us. When we share joy or talk about joy, we develop that deeper relationship, that bond. Maybe I’m being very optimistic, but I think that joy can really overcome so many things.”
Gilmore trains future teachers to think about how racism and injustice steal the joy that Black students should feel in the classroom. That includes less obvious or unintentional forms of racism called microaggressions.
“That takes a certain type of intentionality,” Gilmore said. “When we think about going back to your first question—the importance of Black History Month—this is the time to do it, right? Here you have a month where you could do something to change and grow and affect the lives of folks. So, what are your intentions for Black History Month?”
We hope that you find joy in reading these short introductions to some amazing Black scientists. Then, check out the links to explore their scientific fields.
Inventors & Engineering
Do you love the super soaker and Nerf toys? You can thank Lonnie Johnson for inventing them. He’s an aerospace engineer and inventor who worked for NASA. Now, he’s working on ways to make green energy more affordable. In high school, he was the only Black student at a science fair. His robot won first place.
Garret Morgan invented two things that save people: gas masks and traffic lights. Before his invention, cars and horse-drawn carriages relied on stop-and-go traffic signals. Morgan added the amber (yellow) light in the middle to prevent accidents.
Frederick McKinley Jones is the reason movies have sound and not just pictures. He also invented refrigerated trucks and a portable x-ray machine.
- Check out the best inventions every year at Time for Kids
- Make these cool STEM contraptions sorted by age and project type
- Meet more Black inventors with National Geographic’s three-part collection
The first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry was Marie Daly. She worked on lots of science questions, including how proteins work. The scientists who uncovered the structure of DNA used one of her papers in their work. She also figured out that cholesterol is related to high blood pressure.
Percy Julian was the first Black person to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry. He figured out how to make human hormones from plants.
- Try these chemistry experiments with the American Chemical Society
- Make ice cream and learn about Alfred Cralle with The Fab Lab
Math & Computer Science
Earth isn’t completely round. It’s a geoid. We know that thanks to the work of mathematician Gladys West. She figured it out using math that was too difficult for the other members of her team. Her work is the reason we have GPS tracking technology.
Timnit Gebru is a computer scientist. She helped develop the first iPad. In 2021 she launched the Distributed AI Research Institute and Black in AI to work toward justice and fairness in AI research.
Before computers became the norm, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden worked as “human computers.” They did complex math for NASA. Vaughan led the group. Johnson calculated the trajectory for the moon landing. She also wrote the first NASA report with a woman named as author. Jackson became the first Black woman engineer at NASA. Their story is told in the book and movie “Hidden Figures.”
Computer scientist Annie Easley also started out as a “human computer.” She went on to develop code used in the batteries of the first hybrid cars.
- Listen to Illustrator Laura Freeman read Hidden Figures
- Learn to code and share your projects with Scratch
- Take free computer science and coding lessons at Code.org
The first university-trained Black doctor in the United States was James McCune Smith. He was freed from slavery in 1827 when he was 14 years old. He had to go to Scotland to study medicine. Smith practiced medicine and worked to end slavery through his writing and his work with the underground railroad. He and Frederick Douglass formed the NAACP, a civil rights organization still working to end racism and inequality today.
Alexa Canady was the first Black woman brain surgeon. She specialized in brain surgery for kids. She’s known for working hard to make her patients feel comfortable—and even played video games with them. She invented a tool brain surgeons use to save kids’ lives.
- Learn about the underground railroad with Scholastic
- Watch this TED-Ed video about HeLa Cells and Henrietta Lacks
- Play Outbreak Squad and learn about public health
Space & Physics
Mae Jemison is a doctor, engineer and astronaut. She was the first woman of color to go to space. She spent a week in space aboard NASA’s space shuttle Endeavor. Now her work focuses on sharing her story and connecting kids with science. There’s even a Lego minifigure of Jemison.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a physicist. She studies cosmology, neutron stars and dark matter. She has won awards for her research, science writing and work to make STEM more inclusive.
The first Black person to earn a Ph.D. in the United States was Edward Bouchet in 1876. Despite that accomplishment, Bouchet faced racism that prevented him from working at a university. He spent his teaching career advocating for Black students in academics—especially science.
As of 2022, Jessica Watkins is the Black woman astronaut who has spent the longest time in space. She was in space for 170 days as part of the Space X Crew-4 mission to the International Space Station. Before that, the longest space trip taken by a Black woman astronaut was nearly 43 days by Stephanie Wilson.
- Check out NASA’s celebration of Black astronauts
- Jump into astronomy topics at NASA’s StarChild site
Biology & Agriculture
George Washington Carver is one the most famous Black scientists from U.S. history. He advised three presidents. He’s best known for working with peanut crops. He figured out crop rotation, regularly changing where farmers plant crops to improve soil health.
If you love birds, you have a lot in common with J. Drew Lanham. He’s a wildlife biologist and poet. His work includes songbirds, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and butterflies—with a focus on conservation.
Margaret Collins was the first Black woman insect scientist. She graduated high school at 14. She studied termites all over the world and became a senior researcher for the Smithsonian.
Charles Henry Turner was an insect scientist. He studied social insects like bees and ants. He figured out that bees can see colors and patterns—and use them to form memories.
- Play Top Crop with National Geographic
- Check out bug activities from the Amateur Entomologists’ Society
- Learn to identify 20 common birds with Audubon Society and get ready for Black Birders Week
- Learn about Black History Month and Black Heroes with National Geographic Kids
- Watch the ABCs of Black History and PBS Black History Month
- Black History (It’s Yours) by Nickelodeon
- Check out the incredible scientists on Blacklist 100
- Browse the Black History Month exhibitions at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture
Look for These Books at Your Library
- Books to Celebrate Black History Month from PBS
- 14 New Books for Kids and Teens to Celebrate Black History from Powell’s Books
- Picture Books for Black History Month from New York Public Library
- 25 Children’s Books for Black History Month from King County Library System