Using GPS? Defer to West!

Using GPS? Defer to West!

Gladys Mae West

This is Gladys Mae West (née Brown) an American mathematician born in 1930. What is today known as Global Positioning System (GPS) is linked to her work through the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth, and her work on the development of the satellite geodesy models.

Her 1986 publication on the use of GEOSAT data for calculating geoid heights pioneered today’s GPS. Earlier in 1978, she was project manager for the first earth-orbiting satellite designed for remote sensing of the oceans and that gave birth to the GEOSAT satellite.

Gladys was raised by her parents in their rural Dinwiddie County of Virginia, USA. She helped picked corn, cotton, and tobacco in their family farm while growing up and attending school.

She was an all-rounder in every subject, scoring very high marks, thus earning the place as valedictorian in high school and won full scholarship to study at Virginia State College (now Virginia State University). She was encouraged to study mathematics, which she did, graduating in 1952.

West taught mathematics in Martinsville, Virginia, while studying for her master’s degree in mathematics which she earned in 1955. She obtained a second master’s degree in public administration in 1973 from the University of Oklahoma. She went ahead to receive a Ph.D in public administration at age 70, after her retirement.

Gladys West at work

After her graduation from university, Gladys made many attempts at landing a government job but was turned down, presumably on account of racial segregation. She eventually got an offer from the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory in Dahlgren, Virginia in 1956, where she worked until retirement in 1998. West was the second Black woman employed and the fourth Black employee in that agency. And guess what? She met her future husband on the job, a fellow Black and a fellow mathematician named Ira V. West. They married in 1957 and have raised three children.

Gladys & Ira West

In 1962, Gladys West helped the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator (NORC) Project 29V, which established the motion of the planet Pluto relative to Neptune, through 5 billion arithmetic calculations and 100 hours of computer calculation. She thereafter focused on calculations for satellite orbits.

Her efforts have been recognized in many ways. In 2018, the Virginia Senate passed a joint resolution to recognise Gladys West’s contributions to mathematics and modern technology. On December 6, 2018, the US Air Force inducted West into the Space and Missiles Pioneers Hall of Fame.

Gladys West still finds time to inspire elementary students about the importance of studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

So, next time you use the GPS to find directions and navigate to north or south, east of west, just remember to revert to West, yes, revert and defer to Gladys Mae West.

Written by
Obo Effanga
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