The story behind the lone Black face among a sea of all-white male scientists has finally been uncovered.
Illustrator Candace Jean Andersen was doing research for a children’s book on killer whales when she stumbled upon a photo of scientists gathered at the 1971 Int’l Conference on the Biology of Whales in Virginia, CNN reported. What stood out to her instantly was the face of an African–American woman standing among the crowd of 37 male scientists. Her likeness was partially hidden, however, and she was the only person left unidentified.
The image sent Andersen digging for answers, as she itched to learn more about the mystery woman from the decades-old photo. “Who was she?,” she wondered. “What did she contribute to the conference? What was her story?”
With her burning questions unanswered, Andersen enlisted the help of Twitter.
“Hey Twitter, I’m on a mission,” she wrote in a tweet, dated March 9. “…The woman in this photo was an attendee at a 1971 International Conference on Biology of Whales. She is the only woman, & the only one captioned ‘not identified’ in the article I found the photo in. All the men are named. Can you help me know her?”
Despite having a small Twitter following, Anderson’s plea quickly caught people’s attention, prompting folks from across the world to join her epic search. Thanks to the help of Twitter detectives and an archivist at the Smithsonian, Anderson was in touch with the woman identified as Sheila Minor Huff in a matter of days.
Huff, now 71, was a biological specimen analyst for the Fish and Wildlife Service at the time the photo was taken and went on to enjoy a 35-year scientific career with the federal government, according to CNN. She retired 12 years ago, leaving the field as a high-ranking environmental protection specialist.
The former scientist said she was totally unaware of the social media search until Anderson tracked her down via Facebook.
“I had to go to open a Twitter account to see what all the fuss was about,” she joked to CNN.
In an interview, Huff said she never worried about going unrecognized or being celebrated because she was passionate about environmental resources and wanted to ensure the job got done. As she rose through the ranks of the male-dominated field, Huff assumed more responsibility and was once appointed the head of a Department of Interior office in Chicago.
“It’s no big thing not being named,” she said. “When you know inside yourself, who you are and what you are, does it matter? I do consider myself hidden because what’s important is the outcome.”
Nowadays, Huff said she’s focused on being a grandmother, enjoying rides in her convertible and feeding her love for dance by taking belly dancing classes.
“Always have a Plan B where you can go to your happy place,” she said. “It relieves me of stress and worry, it’s good exercise and I think it helps people lead a better life.”
Ever since their meeting, Andersen said she’s mulled the idea of writing a book about Huff and all her accomplishments.
“I wish the finding of Sheila could become a piece of a bigger picture; like that of a series of episodes about uncovering unnamed or unrecognized women in STEM,” she told CNN.