She’s not your ordinary rocket scientist.
On a daily basis, she dons a “bunny suit” while inspecting NASA spacecraft equipment. But beneath the medical coverall, you’re likely to find 26-year-old Dajae Williams draped in vintage Air Jordans, an Adidas sweat suit and a gold chain.
The St. Louis-bred math and science geek is in her third year as an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Los Angeles, California.
She often introduces herself with a self-assured declaration: “I am the dopest NASA engineer you will ever meet.”
And she credits her dopeness to a fondness for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Williams’ mission is to make STEM learning just as cool to schoolchildren of color, by teaching them the virtues of math and science through hip-hop songs. It’s part of a quest to bring more diversity to those career fields.
“Sometimes education can be, at least in math and science, it can be a very traumatic experience — especially for kids of color,” Williams told St. Louis Public Radio. “We’re not necessarily taught in the language that we learned growing up.”
Her own success is the most powerful weapon she has to reverse the underrepresentation. Williams is one of the youngest people and one of the few women of color working at the national research facility where she’s employed. She tours the country sharing her journey to NASA at teacher workshops and motivational speaking engagements. Her organization Listen Up! Education hosts “THE dopest” school assemblies, brimming with her high-energy swagger. The school rallies feature Williams’ signature musical performances and “mind-blowing science.”
Williams also mentors young kids interested in science, or college students majoring in the discipline. She knows how important the encouragement can be. She had to step out of her comfort zone beginning in third grade. That’s when she started going to a new school as part of a “desegregation program” that bussed underprivileged kids to better-funded schools with stronger curriculums.
“Going into a school where the kids were essentially smarter because they had more resources, it was really tough for me to feel like, ‘Oh this is something I can do,’ ” Williams told NPR.
Classmates referred to Williams as one of the “city kids,” and she found that she had to work harder just to succeed. But she was able to overcome that culture shift with hard work and help from teachers before and after school.
“I saw that the most challenging thing for me was the way that these topics were being taught; it was not relatable at all,” Williams said. “And if it’s not relatable, it’s not memorable.”
It was a through a few key strokes of good fortune that Williams was able to beat the odds. She was invited to be a keynote speaker at the annual Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching Reimagined summit last month and reflected on her path to NASA.
Williams described what she considers to be “mistakes that have allowed her to slip through the cracks and accomplish her wildest dreams.” She said one of the first was getting into the desegregation program after she was initially rejected along with all the other Black students on her inner-city block. That plucked her from the destiny of going to an unaccredited school in her neighborhood, allowing her to attend a top-tier high school in the suburbs of St. Louis.
A second mistake happened during Williams’ freshman year in high school, when a teacher inadvertently enrolled her in an honors geometry class. Williams said she was excited, but her heart dropped when the teacher told her it was a mishap and offered to re-enroll her in a normal math class.
“But by this time, I knew that mistakes were my strength,” she said. “Mistakes gave me a second chance. Mistakes have me showing a whole generation of students how cool math and science can be.”
Williams forged ahead, got an A in the class, and the rest is history.
In 2017, she made her first splash when she penned lyrics teaching the quadratic formula. The song explained coefficients and x-axis intercepts over the sound bed of Soulja Boy’s 2007 summer anthem “Crank Dat.” A music video for the song got thousands of views on Youtube and helped catapult Williams to a level of stardom for her catchy educational jingles.
In July 2018, she was featured on Great Big Story, a former video storytelling platform of CNN. Later that year, she gave a Ted Talks speech on breaking barriers, and living a life of purpose, passion and hip hop.
Williams has partnered with an L.A. music producer to help with her songs. Earlier this year, she spit verses about the order of mathematic operations over a playful dance beat.
In March, she released a cut about unit conversions, rattling off the number of yards in a mile and pounds in a kilogram, among other calculations.
“I’ma show you how to do this; how to convert units,” Williams raps. “Scholars raise your hands, cuz we too busy schooling. It’s simple, let me prove it. Gotta keep improving. We gotta get these grades; a degree what we pursuing.”
On Wednesday, Dec. 2, Williams announced on Instagram that she’s signed a music synchronization license with Strayer University and Capella University, which makes her “Unit Conversions” song part of the online colleges’ intro to science curriculums.
Williams’ love of rap has become an outlet of her artistic expression. But her habit of combining rhythm and arithmetic stems back to seventh grade when a math teacher assigned her class to write a song about the quadratic equation. Williams did and found it to be a useful mnemonic tool.
She began coming up with short song lyrics to help memorize course material for tests in all her classes.
“A huge thing I always heard growing up was, “Oh my god, you know all the words to these songs, but how are you doing in school?'” she said. “So I figured why not mix the two. If you can remember the words of a song, maybe we can use that as a tool to do good in school. And I know that people are so emotionally attached to hip hop music.”
She went to Missouri University of Science and Technology, a STEM college in Rolla, Missouri, on a basketball scholarship. From there, she earned a bachelor of science in engineering management with an industrial engineering emphasis.
Williams also interned at Apple, John Deere, Toyota, Anheuser-Busch and the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab. She became the president of the university’s National Society of Black Engineers and gave the first ever student commencement speech when she graduated in December 2017.
After graduating, Williams was recruited to work at the NASA lab through the federal agency’s Early Career Initiative program. She started out as a manufacturing engineer and was recently named a quality engineer for the lab.
Williams worked on a team of engineers that helped build ground support equipment for the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, an ocean-mapping satellite that was launched into orbit Nov. 21 from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County, California.
“Sometimes I still have to pinch myself,” she told WKRG, a TV station in Mobile, Alabama. “It’s always an exhilarating experience being around so many smart people, just being present, and taking it all in because there is so much to learn.”