Dr. Knatokie Ford, senior policy advisor, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy moderates a panel discussion with cast members and others after a screening of the film “Hidden Figures” at the White House. (Photo: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)
Dr. Knatokie (pronounced NA-TOE-KEY) Ford spent her childhood years in Akron, Ohio as a shy girl who never imagined she would one day advise the President of the United States. When Knatokie was three years old, an accident left her partially blind in one eye. As she grew up, she used this incident to help define her professional goals, ultimately leading to a lifelong fascination with the science behind eye function and vision. After finishing high school, she attended Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia with the hopes of studying medicine and ophthalmology, but her eye injury, which originally sparked her passion, prevented her from becoming a surgeon. Knatokie instead received her Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in Chemistry and Biological Chemistry, respectively. She then gained admission to Harvard University to earn her PhD — but getting in was the easy part.
Knatokie felt out of place at Harvard and doubted her accomplishments. She took a leave of absence in 2004 to spend time in Los Angeles, where she worked in the entertainment industry (a move that would later inspire her to launch her own consulting company) and taught at an underprivileged middle school in South Central Los Angeles. She found it easy to connect with the students there, having grown up under similar circumstances, and sought to inspire them with her story of overcoming adversity to make it to college and then graduate school at Harvard. She recognized how important it was for young people to have a relatable role model in their lives, a realization that drove her to return to Harvard to continue her own education and grow as a leader.
In 2011, she graduated with a PhD in Experimental Pathology and went on to receive the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowship with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. For two years, Knatokie worked as part of what she called “President Obama’s Science Brain Trust,” where she developed reports and policy recommendations like the Image of STEM Program. The program’s mission was to help drive interest in science and technology fields among women and people of color. They did this by challenging the entertainment industry and advertisers to think about diversity in their productions, and discrediting stereotypes and misconceptions about STEM. Appropriately, her last official White House event included a screening of the 2016 hit film Hidden Figures, about NASA’s black female mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. After the film, she moderated a panel including lead actresses Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, about the historical importance of the story, the impact of minorities in STEM, and the creative process.
Although very accomplished in her own right, Knatokie admits she felt like fainting the first time she shook President Barack Obama’s hand in a White House hallway. After an exhilarating introduction, he always greeted her by name whenever they saw each other. Today, she owns her own consulting company called Fly Sci Enterprise, a consultancy focused on bringing authenticity to portrayals of women and people of color in entertainment and solving persistent problems in STEM education such as lack of representation to bring social change. Her advice to younger girls is to “live a life such that if you regret anything, it’s the things you did versus the things you didn’t do.” According to Knatokie, it’s always better to attempt and fail as opposed to never trying and always wondering “what if.”