Gladys West

27 October 1930 - present

Dr. Gladys Mae West is an American mathematician best known for her contributions to the mathematical modelling of the shape of the Earth and the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS).

West spent much of her childhood in rural Virginia harvesting crops on her family’s farm, an occupation she knew many of her peers would continue into adulthood. However, West’s appetite and talent for learning set her on an alternative path. As valedictorian of her high school class, she received a full scholarship to Virginia State College where she went on to earn both her undergraduate and master’s degrees in mathematics.

In 1956, West was offered a job at the US Naval Proving Ground, a weapons laboratory in Dahlgren, Virginia, becoming the second black woman to be hired as a programmer at the base and one of only four black employees. She was admired for her ability to solve complex mathematical equations by hand and eventually programmed computers to solve the equations for her.

During her time at the base, West overcame her feelings of inferiority and worked hard to climb the ranks and gain the admiration and respect of her colleagues. She took part in an award-winning study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune and later became the project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project.

Seasat was the first satellite that could monitor the oceans and it was this project that laid the groundwork for the GPS technologies we all use today.

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