Meet NASA's Dopest Engineer
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you have to see to believe.
By Joshua Eferighe
- Dajae Williams, 26, is a quality engineer at NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory who also makes hip-hop songs about science and math.
- While making STEM more accessible, she’s using her rise from an underprivileged home in St. Louis to inspire others.
Dajae Williams was in seventh-grade math and the topic of the day was the quadratic formula. The concept had been notoriously difficult, so her teacher assigned a remix to the accompanying jingle to be presented in class the next day.
Williams, who tells me Soulja Boy was “literally popping at the time,” chose his No. 1 single, “Crank That,” to pair with the equation, tracking the “X equals negative B” lyrics over hard-hitting 808s and high-hats instead of … well, nursery rhyme.
She not only earned a standing ovation and passing grade, but it laid the groundwork for her academic and musical career. Today, Williams is a 26-year-old quality engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who, under her brand Listen Up Education, fuses hip-hop with math and science to help introduce underprivileged kids to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
I’m not the first to mix education and music, but I’m the first to have swag behind it.
“I’m just really good at mimicking songs and turning it into something that will help me remember things,” she says.
She’s more than that. Williams is verified with the blue check of approval on Instagram, has two singles on Spotify, boasts YouTube videos north of 150,000 views and is consistently being booked for speaking engagements by teachers. “People are wanting what I have because they see the power in it too,” she says. “I’m not the first to mix education and music, but I’m the first to have swag behind it.”
The swag consists of hoodies, jerseys, gold chains, Jordan sneakers and graphic tees with Tupac Shakur on them. You simply have not seen a scientist quite like Williams. That’s also the problem: There isn’t enough Black representation in STEM. African American women earn just 3 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 2 percent of doctoral degrees in STEM fields, and only 9 percent of computer science degrees are going to Black students.
Williams’ mission to reach this demographic was inspired while attending rap mogul Diddy’s Revolt summit in Miami three years ago. The discussion centered around advertising and marketing around hip-hop, which had just become the most-consumed music genre in the U.S. The conference was also the first time Williams noticed how much of a “unicorn” her gig at NASA made her. “People were so intrigued that I was going to be a NASA engineer and was also [at the summit],” she says. After seeing how much of a rarity she was in her new role at NASA and realizing the power of hip-hop, she decided to combine the two. And it was at that moment her musical career was born.
But Williams didn’t always love math and science, nor school for that matter. In fact, she might not have been in that rare 9 percent had she not transferred schools in third grade. Growing up as an only child in a single-parent household in urban St. Louis, schooling wasn’t precisely her focus. And while she describes her home life as underprivileged, she adds that her mom did a great job hiding it from her. “It wasn’t until I grew up that I got to see that we were surviving off of less,” she says.
Her break came thanks to St. Louis’ Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation — a desegregation program that transfers city students to suburban school districts and suburban students to city magnet schools. Her move to a predominantly white school with ample resources resulted in respect from her peers, who were already self-starters and overachievers, and teachers who took time to cultivate the potential in her. “I gained the skill of getting close with my teachers so they can see me as a human and not a number,” she says. “It works in my favor because I get the extra help.”
Connecticut College professor Marc Zimmer, author of The State of Science, which devotes a chapter to disparities in STEM, says that kind of mentorship is crucial for students of color. “Someone who helps you and puts the time and effort in and to see the potential in you is a really important factor on all levels,” he tells me. “She probably had her confidence because she got bolstered up in the seventh grade.”
It’s a confidence that would help her throughout college and situations that, while common, discourage students that typically look like her. During Williams’ sophomore year at Missouri University of Science and Technology, she was forced to go back to St. Louis Community College to play Division III basketball after choosing an engineering internship over basketball, which, at the time, was paying for school. But she did not let it discourage her: After a year back home, she won a different internship, this time awarding her a scholarship that would land her back at S&T where she’d eventually graduate with honors. “I think the drive she had to get to a school, have to give that up, go to a smaller school and to come back speaks to her motivation on wanting to accomplish something,” says Dr. Stephen Raper, associate chair of undergraduate studies at MS&T.
From connections via Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Williams went on to earn an internship at Apple, putting her on the radar for NASA. She thought the first letter from NASA was a joke, but she took the interview. She was recently promoted to quality engineer, inspecting mechanical and electrical hardware.
Still, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. When Williams first landed the job, she wanted to quit and even reached out to HR with her concerns. “I felt like I was losing myself with all the code-switching,” she says. When she went home, she would talk differently and have unrecognizable habits and couldn’t connect with her family. The gold chains, Jordans and streetwear are her way to cope. “I felt like I always had to be two different people, and [I] was determined to find a way to make those two worlds blend.”
Now in her third year at the lab, Williams reminds herself that she is worthy to be there by doubling down on her Blackness. Much like what her seventh-grade teacher did for her, Williams wants to give others confidence too. “What I want people to realize is that I’m no smarter than anyone else,” she says. “Don’t sit there and think something’s wrong with you, [that] they just have a secret weapon that they’re not sharing with you.”
As for what’s next? “I want to be the Black female Bill Nye — where Fresh Prince and Bel-Air meet.”