Illustrator Candace Jean Andersen was busy researching orcas for a children’s book when she came across a photo that stopped her in her tracks.
Andersen found an article and corresponding photo of a group of scientists at the 1971 International Conference on the Biology of Whales in Virginia. Although mostly covered by the sea of predominantly White men, who are all listed by name, there’s an African American woman in the photo who is unidentified. Out of 37 men in the photo, all considered noteworthy enough for mention in the article, the sole woman, is partially covered and disregarded. Bothered by the nameless Black woman in the picture, Andersen halted her initial illustration project for another, the investigation of the unidentified scientist.
“It bothered me for days not knowing who this woman was,” Andersen told CNN. If she was there, at that conference she’s got to be important. I need to know her.”
Unsure how to start the journey of uncovering a mystery from a photo almost 50 years ago, Andersen posted the photo on Twitter for help with the investigation.
“Hey Twitter I’m on a Mission: The woman in this photo was an attendee at a 1971 International Conference on Biology of Whales. She is the only woman, [and] the only one captioned ‘not identified’ in the article I found the photo in. All the men are named. Can you help me know her,” Andersen wrote on March 9.
Although Andersen doesn’t have a massive Twitter following, the tweet garnered attention immediately with almost 28 thousand likes, 13 thousand retweets, and 440 comments.
Eventually the name, Sheila Minor, who was presumed to be support staff, was given to Andersen, yet she didn’t want to stop there.
With the help of Smithsonian archivists who eventually caught wind of the Twitter thread and investigation, more about Minor’s life was eventually uncovered.
By March 11, she was able to reach out to Minor on Facebook, and by Monday morning she replied, “We have so much to discuss.”
No longer a “hidden figure”, the mystery woman, whose full name is Sheila Minor Huff and currently lives in Virginia, was far more than support staff. At the time of the photo she worked at the Fish and Wildlife Service as a biological specimen analyst.
According to CNN, Huff had a 35-year scientific career with the federal government and retired 12 years ago as a top environmental protection specialist.
Huff is unbothered, despite being partially hidden and unidentified. “It’s no big thing not being named. When you know inside yourself who you are and what you are, does it matter?”
Now retired, Huff focuses on being a grandmother and enjoying life, such as driving in her convertible and taking belly dancing classes.
Inspired by her work, Andersen is considering writing a book and continuing the saga of relaying truths about women in STEM- à la “Hidden Figures”, the Margot Lee Shetterly best-selling novel and Oscar nominated 2016 film.
“I wish the finding of Sheila could become a piece of a bigger picture; like that of a series of episodes about uncovering unnamed or unrecognized women in stem.