Trailblazing via Mathematics: Need Directions?

Gladys Mae West - Navy Hero 

There are many Africans who contribute tremendously to global society via their everyday 9-to-5 plantation posts, yet they remain hidden from the public eye. Their talents are used daily by masses and credit is rarely given - publicly. Many of us go unrecognized. Our works are undervalued and downplayed until one of us begins to acknowledge the other’s contributions and our greatness on the internet and other forums like social media. Then, of course, it becomes “newsworthy” and the doppelgangers find it convenient to bestow an award after 50 or 70 years of labor. Conversely, our product(s) and talent(s) bears fruit astronomically and their profitable interests are prodigious. It's outright disrespectful. However, I don’t hold the doppelgangers responsible completely because truth be told, culturally we’ve been trained to be “humble.” We’ve been brainwashed into believing that we really aren’t as good as we know we are. We doubt ourselves. Like every other race, we have our imperfections. Another is to believe that people will do right by us if we just keep our heads down and keep doing right, keep doing good, keep giving it our best. Times are changing. Africans are returning to a state of self-consciousness, our sense of self-respect and cultural value is allowing for our connectedness to be restored. We will continue to fight for equal recognition, but first, we will give credit where credit is due within our own community.

This beautiful Navy hero’s name is Mrs. Gladys Mae West. Her story has been hidden long enough. She is an Africans woman, an elder in our community and a global contributor whose oeuvres have been in use by the public for years, and yet her name is unfamiliar to most. Foreign even. Mrs. West's accomplishments will keep you in awestruck mode long enough for your mouth to drop wide open from astonishment. What are these contributions that are so grand, so unbelievable that you would have such an out of body experience? Well, you must read on if this has intrigued you thus far.

Mrs. Gladys Mae West was born in 1930 in a rural town in Virginia. Her family worked long days under the hot sun on the tobacco fields and neighboring factories. As a young girl, she used to put in her fair share of hours as well. However, she knew that she could achieve much more with formal scholastic education. She was top (#1) of her high school's graduating class and because of her high scores, she was awarded a full scholarship to Virginia State College where she majored in mathematics, a subject mostly taken by men at the time. This was a notable feat and her first major step toward success. She remained focused and disciplined in college and graduated with honors. Her intellect, mathematical ingenuity, and her ability to compute landed her a career as a computer programmer in 1956 at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia, (now called the Naval Surface Warfare Center). Mrs. West was the second black woman ever hired and one of only four black employees. Mrs. West was a programmer for large-scale computers and the project manager for data-processing systems used in the analysis of satellite data. In the early 1960s, she participated in an award-winning study that demonstrated the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune.  At her 9-to-5, Mrs. West analyzed data from satellites, putting together altimeter models of the Earth's shape. This African woman was the project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans. Her dedication, tireless work ethic cut her team’s processing time in half. She was recommended for a commendation in 1979. Is this your first time learning about Mrs. West’s accomplishments? Are you in awe? Let’s continue.

“From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, Mrs. West programmed an IBM computer to deliver increasingly precise calculations to model the shape of the Earth – an ellipsoid with irregularities, known as the geoid. Generating an extremely accurate model required her to employ complex algorithms to account for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth’s shape. Mrs. West's data ultimately became the basis for the Global Positioning System (GPS).” I know, pretty remarkable, right? So why hasn’t she been on the front page of every newspaper in the world? Or Times Magazine? She has surely contributed more than Donald Trump and yet his face is plastered everywhere, his name is as well known as the franchise McDonald’s. You would think every navigational system used on our basic smartphones would have her initials, her tagline, her face, I mean, anything that would lead us back to the African Mathmetician!  “In 1986, Mrs. West published "Data Processing System Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter", a 51-page technical report for the Naval Surface Weapons Center (NSWC). The guide was published to explain how to increase the accuracy of the estimation of geoid heights and vertical deflection, important components of satellite geodesy. This was achieved by processing the data created from the radio altimeter on the Geosat satellite, which went into orbit on March 12, 1984.” Mrs. West worked for 42 years at Dahlgren; She retired in 1998. At 68 years of age, Mrs. West achieved her Ph.D. in Public Administration at Virginia Tech. She has since been graced with several television interviews, awards, and recognition for her mathematical and scientific contributions. She was inducted into the U.S. Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018. She never imagined her day-to-day contributions would have such an impact on the world. She said during an interview, “When you’re working every day, you’re not thinking, ‘What impact is this going to have on the world?’ You're thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this right.’ Well, Mrs. West, you not only did it right, you did awesomely!


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