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Racist hackers tried to ruin their chances in a NASA competition. Six months later, they’re undeterred.

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 23, 2018

Bria Snell, India Skinner and Mikayla Sharrieff, left to right, are applying to college, intending to pursue careers in college and hoping their story serves as an inspiration for other students. (Washington Post)
Bria Snell, India Skinner and Mikayla Sharrieff, left to right, are applying to college, intending to pursue careers in college and hoping their story serves as an inspiration for other students. (Washington Post)
By Perry Stein Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The three District of Columbia high school seniors had a whirlwind of a summer. First, they had a private meeting with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Or was it Microsoft chief Satya Nadella?

They can’t quite remember. But they know they loved it all. Google sent them to Flint, Michigan, to distribute clean water. They traveled to Seattle to participate in a computer programming event, and to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. They received fan mail from Girl Scouts. They met black female scientists who offered career advice. Colleges called, swaying them to apply to their campuses. And Lester Holt featured them on “NBC Nightly News.”

Their story tread an all-too-familiar path in our epoch: from inspiring to dismaying and back to inspiring.

“A lot has transpired,” said Bria Snell, one of the high schoolers.

Mikayla Sharrieff, India Skinner and Snell – all 17 years old and students at Banneker High – were finalists in a prestigious NASA high school competition. The trio were the only all-black, female team to make it that far.

But during the online voting portion of the competition, users on 4chan – an anonymous Internet forum where users are known to push hoaxes and spew racist and homophobic comments – tried to ensure the students wouldn’t win. They hacked the voting system, erasing votes, and told others not to support the teens because of the color of their skin.

A Washington Post article about the incident led politicians, business leaders and scientists to connect with the three students. For the NASA competition, they had developed a method to purify lead-contaminated water in school drinking fountains, and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser awarded them a $4,000 grant to further their invention.

Six months later, the teens – now seniors applying to college – say the encounter with racism left them undeterred. They still plan to be doctors and scientists and know that, as black females in these male-dominated fields, they almost certainly will encounter discrimination again as professionals.

“Looking back at it, in a way, I’m glad I experienced it at such a young age because I’ll know how to handle it when I encounter it again,” Sharrieff said. “I know I’ll hit more bumps in the road and, after experiencing this, I can speak up.”

The teens said the hacking wasn’t completely unexpected. When they posted about their competition on Twitter, some people criticized them. The anonymous posters used racial epithets, argued that the students’ project did not deserve to be a finalist and said the black community was voting for the teens only because of their race.

The students suspected that one of these people could take more drastic measures to thwart their chances. When they saw their vote count in the NASA competition plummet, their fears were confirmed.

“To be told we were at an advantage because of our skin, it was confusing,” Snell said. “Why can’t we just win because we worked hard? It seems they can’t see past the color of our skin.”

After the attempted hacking of the competition was confirmed, the students remained determined and decided they would set an example for girls of color across the country hoping to pursue careers in science. Each time they received an invitation to meet with people or participate in an event, they decided together whether they would attend.

The invitation to meet with DeVos generated the most discussion. The teens said they heard about the controversies surrounding the education secretary and feared she didn’t support young women who were interested in science and who attended the traditional public school system.

But they said DeVos appeared genuinely interested in hearing their suggestions.

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