Black History Month: Honoring Black Scientists

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Honoring Black Scientists

Dr. Gladys West, a black mathematician, built the geodetic model of the earth, becoming the foundation for GPS! Today, most of us use this important technology for various purposes like hiking trails, mapping, and driving destinations. Dr. Marguerite Thomas Williams was the first African-American to earn a PhD in geology!  She studied the effects of erosion and was a geography professor. Read more about both of them below.

Dr. Marguerite Thomas Williams (1895-1991) was the first African American to earn a PhD in geology.  She started her career as an elementary teacher and then became a professor at Miner teachers college where she was chair of the division of geography for 10 years. Her career focused mostly on teaching geography and social science classes, rather than research. However, she published her PhD dissertation titled “The Study of the History of Erosion in the Anacostia Drainage Basin.” The project examined the geology of a local river basin and explored issues that eventually led to its erosion. She concluded that, human activities, including deforestation, agriculture and urban development, accelerated the erosion process. Dr. Williams retired in 1955.

Dr. Gladys West (1930- ) was a mathematician known for her contributions to the mathematical modeling of the shape of the earth and the development of the satellite geodesy models that were eventually incorporated into the global positioning system (GPS). She worked at the Naval Proving Ground in Virginia as a computer programmer and a project manager for systems used for the analysis of satellite data.

In the 1960’s, she began to analyze data from satellites, putting together altimeter models of the earth’s shape, becoming the project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project-the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans. Into the 1980’s, West then worked on programming a computer to produce specific calculations to model the shape of the earth.

She published a 51 page report titled: Data Processing System Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter and was inducted into the US Air force Hall of Fame in 2018. Retiring after 42 years, she then went on to earn a PhD in Public Administration from Virginia Tech. Her 2020 autobiography is titled: It Began with a Dream.

Resources: Scientificwomen.net and Wikipedia