Dajae Williams is an accidental engineer. Her freshman year at Kirkwood High School in Missouri a teacher enrolled her in honors geometry by mistake, and that changed her life. Now, the 26-year-old is working at NASA as a rocket scientist and traveling the country speaking to young people about math and science using music.
“Sometimes I still have to pinch myself,” she told reporters. “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.”
The native of St. Louis now lives in Los Angeles where she is a quality engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, which was made possible by the company’s Early Career Initiative program. She is one of the few Black people and one of the youngest to work at the research facility.
“Look, there are some pretty dope people that I work with across all of the NASA campuses, but I’m pretty sure that I’m the dopest,” Williams told St. Louis Public Radio.
She’s not kidding, she’s been able to translate difficult math and science theories into easy to remember, and catchy, hip-hop songs. Teachers, students, and even her coworkers, have become enamored with her tunes. Recently, Williams was selected as a keynote speaker to share her story with the Science Teachers Association of Texas. She discussed how difficult it was growing up as one of the few Black people in a school district and how the lack of cultural awareness caused a disconnect between her and her teachers.
“Sometimes education can be, at least in math and science, it can be a very traumatic experience…especially for kids of color. We’re not necessarily taught in the language that we learned growing up,” she explained to St. Louis Public Radio as to why she enjoys working with children. “Your teachers don’t look like you, they don’t understand where you’re coming from. So I’ve seen some pretty traumatic things, and I also have experienced some trauma myself in education, so to see the kids dancing and laughing when it comes to education…that is honestly what brings me joy.”
She began using music to help her in class in high school. Then went on to perfect her raps while studying at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla where she was studying engineering management with an emphasis in industrial engineering. There she took Soulja Boy Tell’em’s popular “Crank That” beat and added lyrics on how to solve the quadratic equation, which went viral on social media.
Williams’ first love was music, she wanted to be a producer, but after seeing how well she did in math while in high school her mom encouraged her to try the STEM field due to its lack of gender and racial representation.
“My mom convinced me to go into a STEM field,” she said. “She saw that I was getting good at math and science, so she was like, ‘Why don’t you explore this. There’s not a lot of women. There’s not a lot of black people in this field. See what you can do. See if you can make a change.’”
Her mother’s motivation worked out for her in the end because now she’s able to use both her passions to make a difference. She worked on the team that helped build the ground support equipment for Sentinel-6, which is the first in a series of spacecraft that launched this past weekend to monitor our oceans. Now that she’s reached one of her dreams she pushes others to reach for the moon because they just may land in the stars.
“Put yourself out there. Apply for things that you don’t think you qualify for. Take classes that you don’t think you’re smart enough for. It will take you further than you realize.”