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Center Snapshot: Michelle Ferebee
Michelle Ferebee. Image above: Michelle Ferebee gave a welcome message at the "Red Tails" event at Cinebistro in Hampton, where she introduced two of the Tuskegee Airmen and allowed students from Hampton University to ask them questions. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Denise Lineberry

Michelle Ferebee was the second black female to graduate from the math department at William and Mary.

"Somebody forgot to tell me that girls aren't good at math," she said.

In elementary school, when a teacher asked her to work out even-numbered problems, she found herself doing the odds also ... simply because she enjoyed it. While attending Bethel High School, a teacher inspired her to concentrate on math.

"I didn't realize it at the time, but he was ahead of his time," Ferebee said. "He was writing programs that would average our grades."

She graduated college with the intent to go to medical school. But three months later, she began work as a computer programmer at the Naval Air Station in Patuxent, Md.

In 1983, a job came open at NASA's Langley Research Center. She applied, got the job and began writing software to display atmospheric data, first for the Earth Radiation Budget Experiment, and next for Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES). Ferebee worked with instrument development to define how the data would be formatted off the satellite and onto the ground for processing.

She had an edge, because she also studied computer science in college, a recommendation that came from a classmate she met at NASA Langley. Ferebee was a senior in college and car pooled with her professor and three classmates to take the math course at NASA. The computer science tip came from a graduate student, Melvin Ferebee.

She and Melvin, who also works at NASA Langley, were married 2 ½ years later.

Eventually, her Langley career led her to the Atmospheric Sciences Data Center (ASDC), where she became the manager. From there, she was approached and asked to take on a 6-month detail as agency project manager for the Aerospace Education Services Project.

Ferebee liked the work so much that, when the job was advertised, she applied. She worked in that role for three years until transitioning to her current job as deputy director for partnerships and new business.

"I enjoy people and I enjoy what I do," she said.

And just in case they needed to hear it -- she made it a point to tell other females that they were good at math. She served a mentor for many students through the Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars and Summer High School Apprenticeship Research Program (SHARP) at Langley.

While serving as manager of the data center, she hired a young woman named Erika Alston. Ferebee encouraged Alston to stay in school while she was still young and without obligations. Alston recently defended for her PhD, and will gradute from Georgia Tech in May.

"It's nice to know that, somehow, I've influenced others positively," Ferebee said.

Her positive influence earned her recognition from the YWCA as a Woman of Distinction and from Women of Color in STEM for her corporate responsibility.

Michelle and Melvin have three children: Melvin III, Michael and Taylor. Melvin III graduated from William and Mary and Michael graduated from the University of Virginia. Taylor is a junior at Hampton Roads Academy.

As the youngest of four, Ferebee learned the importance of family. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom until all of her children were in school. She then returned to school herself to become a teacher. Her father worked for the postal service.

Her siblings became a dentist, a judge and a legal assistant.

Ferebee appreciates her work, because it allows her to, foremost, be a mom and a wife.

"At Langley, there is a notion that family comes first and I believe in and see that," she said. "Because of that, people will work to fulfill NASA's mission."

Nobody forgot to tell her that her work, her family or her influence matter.

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman