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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.

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"When I was in high school, the teachers were very instrumental in trying to encourage you to go further; they wanted as many of us to get educated as they could," said West. She eventually received a full scholarship to Virginia State College. When West learned she would still be responsible for room and boarding fees while studying at the all-black college, a math professor opened her home to her. Such support from her instructors made West even more determined to succeed.

"The professors in college were great; they nurtured us, helped us pick the right courses and made sure we studied. They were very invested in our education," said West.

After graduation, West looked for work in the math field, but soon realized that even with a degree, there were still barriers to the life she wanted. "During that time, there was a ceiling for black people, and you could be a teacher or a preacher or maybe a lawyer," West explained.

"When I applied for jobs with the government, they didn't come through, but the teaching jobs did. So I taught for a few years, then went back to school."

In 1956, shortly after West received a master's degree in mathematics, a letter came in the mail with her first real job prospect.

It was from Naval Surface Warfare Center, and asked her to interview for a job. Initially, West turned the offer down, unwilling to commute the 240 miles from her home in Martinsville, Virginia, to Dahlgren, Virginia. One week later, a second letter came, this time with a guaranteed position. She accepted, becoming one of only four African-Americans working at the base, including her future husband.

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Once she was hired, West went through a six-week course, learning to program code for computers. She was excited, but unlike teaching data processing, it was a male-dominated career field. It took time to adjust.

"Being a teacher and not knowing anything about computers, it was really different. It was a humongous thing that took up the whole room!" said West. "We had to first learn the new computer language. When I got there, the people were nice; you just had to take the time to learn."

West spent the early years of her career as a programmer for large-scale computers. She soon got the hang of it, and eventually learned to debug and troubleshoot the equipment without help from manuals.

"I came from Dinwiddie county and our schools were not as good as the big cities, so I was just proud that I could stand up with those great scientists and understand what they were saying and be able to program and code for them," she said. "That was a pretty big deal to me."

West's methodical approach to data processing made her a natural fit for the satellite program that would become GPS.

The GPS program was composed of 50 mathematicians and engineers at Dahlgren. West's team focused on calculating data from satellites to determine their exact locations. That information was then used to determine precise surface elevations, or geoid heights.

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"The project began with trying to determine the shape of the Earth," West explained. "If you're flying over something, the shape of the Earth has a lot to do with what kind of orbit you have. You have mountains and valleys under the water, which affects elevation and the strength of orbits, so we worked on geoid heights and undulations and identifying them."

The process required West to perform computer simulations until the margin for error between calculations was as small as possible.
The system went on line for the military in 1973, nearly ten years before it became available for civilian use. It would go on to be used for everything from surveying farm land to geotagging endangered animals in the wild.

Meanwhile, West continued to progress in her career; in 1978, she was chosen as a project manager for developing the first satellite capable of remotely sensing oceans. Ten years later, she published a guide on calculating the accuracy of geoid heights on the Geosat satellite that went into orbit in 1984.

West retired in 1998 after 42 years at Dahlgren, but it wasn't until she received a navigation device from her son-in-law that she discovered the impact GPS had made.

"When we were working on the project, I was thinking of it more in terms of military applications so I didn't see it other way at the time. I understood that we could compute positions on the Earth, but I didn't learn of other uses until after I retired," said West.

She doesn't use it much, however; according to her daughter, Carolyn West-Oglesby, West prefers to rely on more traditional methods for navigation - namely, maps.

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"I don't think it dawned on Mom that the device was something she helped create, and even when she did, she didn't talk about it much," said West-Oglesby. "Mom has always been very humble and would never go out and brag about her career. It was her job and she's always seen it that way. She has a lot of respect for the work she and others did; she was a silent warrior."

Although she has retired from NSWDD, West remains a supporter of math and science programs and regularly speaks at local schools. She hopes to spark interest in the sciences in school children early, to create the next generation of engineers and scientists.

"I've been here so long I just feel it's important to give back, and I really enjoy it. It's exciting to see the students and to see them excited about math and science at such an early age," she said.

Her enthusiasm is especially strong when she talks about women in STEM: "I think we've taken great strides in equality for women in STEM. When women show up, we're even more confident about ourselves and our positions than we were back then," said West. "My advice to them is to be yourself. If you really like something, go for it. If you're a girl and you're interested in engineering, be an engineer. You don't know where your talents are until you experiment."

She also passed her love of learning to her own children, encouraging them to seek an education in whatever they were passionate about. In fact, West-Oglesby believes her mother's dedication to her career helped remove many of obstacles women once faced.

"It feels really good to see the impact my mom has made," she said. "It encourages me that there's no limits to what women can do, there's so many more opportunities for us because of the work done by people like Mom. The glass ceiling may not totally be gone, but it's far removed from where it was."

Editor's Note: To learn about another Navy "hidden figure," read/watch "Breaking Barriers: The Raye Montague Story," parts one and two.