Calculating the Future
STEM Pioneer Gladys West Overcomes Segregation
When you need directions or want to find a restaurant in a new town, you turn your location on, type the name into your phone's search engine and, within seconds, your destination is ready for you. The days of struggling with a map are long gone. You can thank Gladys West for that.
She was born in Sutherland, Virginia, a small town. Opportunities other than the back-breaking work of sharecropping were scarce for African-Americans. But West desired something else, a life different than that of her parents. Ultimately, her love of math would give her a better life and help change the world.
West worked at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWDD) as a mathematician, collecting data from orbiting machines that helped establish locations for satellites. She never expected her work to change the lives of millions. But, in fact, her calculations laid the ground work for global positioning systems (GPS) used around the world.
"It's strange; I almost can't believe it. I didn't think so many people would ever be interested in my story or that GPS would go so far and develop into what it is today," said West.
She is an unassuming figure, the type of woman to gloss over a 42-year career with a quick note in her sorority newsletter and think very little of it.
It was a future that once seemed impossible in segregated, Jim Crow, 1930s Virginia. West attended a tiny elementary school with just one teacher, but thrived academically. She knew education was the only way to get out.
"We didn't necessarily have STEM programs in schools at the time," she said. "It wasn't a familiar concept, but I was told by my teachers that an education in math or science would lead to more opportunities if I chose it, so I did."
Mentoring from her geometry teacher helped cultivate her love of math, and it became her favorite subject.