Three Washington D.C.-area high school students entered a competition supported by NASA, developing a way to purify lead-contaminated water in drinking fountains.
Instead of being celebrated for being the only all-black, female team to be named as finalists, the trio were bombarded with racist comments by anonymous online trolls on the website 4chan, according to The Washington Post.
The content that the trio entered was NASA Goddard’s Optimus Prime Spinoff Promotion and Research Challenge. The grand prize is a trip to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. and a $4,000 stipend, according to the contest’s website.
Mikayla Sharrieff, India Skinner and Bria Snell, all 17-years-old, tried to celebrate their achievements, with one of them texting, “Hidden figures in the making,” referencing the hit 2016 movie, “Hidden Figures.”
“Hidden Figures” is about three African-American women who worked at NASA in the agency’s early days. The movie went on to gross $236 million, has an approval rating of 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and was nominated for three Academy Awards.
Though Sharrieff, Skinner and Snell were popular on social media, racking up votes highlighting their work, anonymous posters on 4chan said the trio’s work did not deserve to be among the finalists, adding that the African-American community only supported them because of their race.
One even said they would consider hacking the voting system to give others, including a team of teenage boys, better odds of winning the competition.
NASA said in a statement that although voting had been compromised. Sharrieff, Skinner and Snel’s project is still listed among the other finalists, of which there are 8 in total.
“Unfortunately, it was brought to NASA’s attention yesterday that some members of the public used social media, not to encourage students and support STEM [science, technology, education and math], but to attack a particular student team based on their race and encouraged others to disrupt the contest and manipulate the vote, and the attempt to manipulate the vote occurred shortly after those posts,” NASA said in a statement on the competition’s website.
The government agency added: “NASA continues to support outreach and education for all Americans, and encourages all of our children to reach for the stars.”
Sharrieff made mention of the issues on her Twitter account, posting a picture with a letter and the caption “Thank you so much your support (heart emoji)”
Her initial tweet about the project, noting that “We are the only team from the east coast & female minority group!” has been retweeted nearly 3,000 times since being posted on April 23.
Winners will be announced in early May, the website states.
Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia