St. Louis NASA Engineer Uses Hip-Hop To Get People Interested In Math And Science
Dajae Williams boasts that she’s “the dopest person to ever work at NASA.”
A quality engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Los Angeles, Williams is also one of the youngest people to work at the research facility. The St. Louis native started her career at NASA at such a young age through the company’s Early Career Initiative.
She said the program allows engineers to kick off their profession without the pressure of being “geniuses” already. Not only is she one of the youngest people there, but she’s one of the few women of color. That sets her apart in some big ways.
“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 said.
At 26, the rocket scientist has also garnered the attention of teachers across the country. Why? Williams turns daunting math and science theories and formulas into hip-hop songs. And her verses might be the most useful earworms ever.
For example, in her latest track “Unit Conversions,” she combines some friendly boasting with units of measurements. Some of her favorite lyrics are: “2 pints, 1 quart; Imma genius, I can do way more than dribble down a court. Learning is my sport. 100 is my score. Don’t forget one gallon equals four quarts.”
On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, producer Lara Hamdan talked with Williams about how she’s educating kids by building a bridge between science, technology, engineering, math — and hip-hop.
Williams’ colleagues have embraced her artistic expression. When she makes national headlines via outlets such as CNN or NPR, they’ll share it across the company.
But growing up, NASA wasn’t on Williams’ radar. It was not until her sophomore year at Kirkwood High School that she gained a knack for math. Even then, music helped.
“If I needed to remember a word, I would sing it in a certain way so that when I'm in a test, I think of that jingle, and boom, I have the answer,” she explained.
That assignment laid the groundwork for more polished songs in college. She studied engineering management with an emphasis in industrial engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.
There, she created a rap song set to the beat of Soulja Boy Tell'em’s popular “Crank That” dance craze. But instead of lyrics about cranking wrists and lunging into a superman pose, Williams’ song is about the equation it takes to solve the quadratic formula.
Williams said spending time at the St. Louis Science Center in her younger years also helped mold her path and inspired her to develop ways to attract young people to complex material.
“It played a huge role … they exposed me to a lot of robotics and chemistry, and things of that sort, so I wasn't necessarily afraid of those topics when I was learning them in school, whereas some of my peers were learning these things for the first time,” she said.
“And they also gave us an opportunity to teach these topics. So it gave me not only science experience but also public speaking and learning how to relay messages, which is huge in the engineering world, because you have to communicate your ideas thoroughly to make something happen or make sure that things work.”
Eventually, Williams realized her passion for music was the way she could share the math and science she uses at NASA. In California, she met producer "Just Dre." He wasn’t used to working with engineers, but he gave Williams a shot.
“He was a little bit thrown off, but I came in there with good vibes and I let him hear some old music, and it made him a little bit more comfortable with producing this type of music. And also, every time I tell someone [about] this, they're like, ‘Oh, my god, I wish I had this when I was younger,’” Williams said. “So he was, I guess, looking at his younger self saying, ‘I know this is something that would’ve helped me, so I'm willing to be a part of it.’”
Williams said working with students demonstrates the positive impacts music can have on student morale.
“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. “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.”
Williams said she hopes to go on tour to universities, where students from elementary school to high school can enjoy her performances and have a different kind of college campus experience.
She has a surprising fan base already.
“A lot of people at my job, they know that I write this music. So they always ask me to come perform at the talent show — and the crowd goes crazy. Like, they're even more excited than the kids. Because [these are] people that are in love with science and math, they have dedicated their lives to it. So to see it in a form of music, they are just so impressed,” Williams said.
Learn more about Williams’ songwriting process and why her NASA colleagues agree that she’s one of the coolest people to work with:
While kids are stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic, Williams says she wants to help. Parents and teachers can access her innovative educational material by emailing email@example.com.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
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