"Since you do well in all subjects, you can major in math..."
October 2, 2020 4:07 PM   Subscribe

Gladys West is a mathematician and an early computer programmer who was among a small group of women who did computing for the U.S. military. When she got her first post-college job at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, she was one of only four African American employees. Her work in the late 70s and early 80s, modelling the shape of the Earth, became the basis for modern GPS systems. She mentioned this fact in a sorority newsletter contribution and this resulted in her being inducted into Space and Missiles Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2018 (the same year she earned her PhD). Listen to her briefly tell her own story here.
posted by jessamyn (4 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
I’m a huge fan. Great find!
posted by shaademaan at 9:56 PM on October 2, 2020

Cool. I use geodecy and geoids every day in my work. I had no idea how they originated until now.
posted by klanawa at 10:48 AM on October 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

One of the many reasons I love posts like this is that they often prompt me to do a little more searching of my own.

I was curious whether West was one of the women in Hidden Figures; apparently, she was not. But my quick searching turned up a BBC feature on West, a story in the St. Louis American, and a story about the release of her own memoir, It Began with a Dream.

Wikipedia's article on Dr. West says she's still alive and well (although the BBC article notes she's survived a stroke and breast cancer), and notes that she still prefers using paper maps instead of GPS.

I am delighted to learn about Dr. West. Thank you so much for posting this, jessamyn!
posted by kristi at 2:12 PM on October 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Here's an interview with Dr. West as part of Dahlgren Centennial Celebration's podcast series: mp3 transcript

> when we first started a program, you had one cell plus another cell and then you put it in a third cell kind of thing but then when you got the Fortran coding you can just write out an algorithm, you know, without all this, you know, register to register kind of thing, that was really great.

> When we first started, women didn’t seem as much a part of the upper level of management so you were always working, so therefore I didn’t travel as much and, I guess, I wasn’t that excited about traveling after I had kids. But then my husband retired before I did and after he retired and the kids were grown, I traveled with family. I got to go to places like Guam-we had a station in Guam and one in Spain, where the satellites had given data and data was collected and we had software that we used that data at that station, we did some of that. But I’d been to California and stuff like that and we had a lot of meetings in Washington and that.

> I didn’t go on the ships and they said it was a little hairy in there. I guess when I would travel, I guess[it was] very seldom that we had a military person, every once in a while there was a military person and mostly it was civilians, all of us who were civilians but things were a little hairy with maybe women traveling to begin with you know, I guess, it’s always special when there’s a woman, that kind of thing. I didn’t deal with the military enough to feel any idiosyncrasies about the ships,you know, and the quarters.

> But for the racial thing, at an earlier time women or men had a hard time traveling because we weren’t allowed to stay over. [...] I started in ‘56 maybe ’56 to ‘57. You just couldn’t stay at a certain hotel and stuff so therefore rather than embarrass the person and whenever and wherever, I guess they didn’t carry you. And a lot of times too, to get ahead and do things you had to sort of be at the top of the project you couldn’t stay at home all the time or your project wouldn’t be sufficient just to stay at home.

>I recently now look and I see that women are being put in leadership positions more so than at that time and the Navy just that we got to grow and get used to women being in the field and knowing something, you know. And a lot of women now, since my time, they’ve had good experiences and they’re excited and they want to be a leader and they want to be at the top of the project and all and so I guess the world is more accepting than it was earlier.

> What did really I enjoy the most? I think as I got more senior and whatever that I did not enjoy being on the bench as much because it sort of frees you up and you think differently so that’s how I changed my schooling, I guess, management, I had a degree in management or public administration really. They had programs that came down from the University of Oklahoma and they would teach management courses and so I started taking those courses and sometimes they have a little psychology and how you do organizational stuff and all that.

> near the end [...] they were always reducing the work force in the Navy, and maybe all military, so they were always talking about who was going to be left and whose gonna lose their jobs and all that kind of stuff. So I got interested in trying to see what was the effect of this downsizing on the people who were left in the organization because if you didn’t know whether you were leaving or not, what effect did that have on your work? That’s when I wrote that paper on that, so I think that was a contribution. I didn’t completely complete [ the dissertation ] until I retired.


Here's a link to one of Dr. West's earlier publications Smoothing of Geos 3 satellite radar altimeter data

> Filtering of a large portion of Geos 3 satellite radar altimetry data at the Naval Surface Weapons Center has been accomplished by a Wiener smoother. The statistics of the geoid for the Wiener smoother is based on a third‐order Markov process. Because of some limitations the Wiener smoother has been replaced by a Kalman smoother which satisfies more closely the conditions of the altimetry data. The Kalman smoother also uses the same third‐order Markov statistics. A discussion of the smoothers (filter models), results obtained from the models, and a comparison of results with ship survey data are given in this paper.
posted by are-coral-made at 2:32 PM on October 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

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