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  • Kimberley Guillemet

World Changer of the Month — November 2023: Dr. Gladys Mae Brown West

Dr. Gladys Mae Brown West was born in Sutherland, Virginia. Her mother worked in a tobacco factory and her father worked for the railroad. Her family also owned a small farm and she spent much of her childhood harvesting crops. Dr. West saw education as a tool that would set her on a path to a different life, and at school, she quickly excelled.

At Dr. West's high school, the top two students from each graduating class received full scholarships to Virginia State College (now Virginia State University), a historically black public university. Dr. West graduated as valedictorian in 1948, and was awarded the scholarship. Dr. West graduated from VSU in 1952 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics. She immediately became a teacher and began saving money for graduate school. She returned to the university a few years later and earned a Master’s degree in mathematics.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. West was hired to work at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia, (now the Naval Surface Warfare Center) as a computer programmer. There, she was the second Black woman ever hired and one of only four Black employees, one of whom was Ira West, the man who would later become her husband. Dr. West became a project manager for processing systems for satellite data analysis, and concurrently studied for and earned a second Master's degree, this one in public administration, from the University of Oklahoma.

In the early 1960s, Dr. West participated in an award-winning study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune. Subsequently, she began to analyze satellite altimeter data from NASA's Geodetic Earth Orbiting program, to create models of the Earth's shape (a field known as geodesy). She became project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans. Dr. West's work cut her team's processing time in half, and she was recommended for a commendation.

At Dahlgren, Dr. West programmed an IBM 7030 Stretch computer to deliver increasingly precise calculations for the shape of the Earth; an ellipsoid with additional undulations known as the geoid. To generate an accurate geopotential model Dr. West needed to use complex algorithms to account for variations in the gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth's shape. Dr. West's model became the basis for the Global Positioning System (GPS).

After working at Dahlgren for 42 years, Dr. West retired in 1998 and set her sights on earning her Ph.D. Despite suffering a stroke soon thereafter, she persisted in her pursuit of her doctorate. As soon as she was discharged from the hospital, Dr. West focused on rehabilitation and resumed her studies. She soon completed her dissertation and earned her Ph.D. in public administration and policy affairs in 2000 at the age of 70.

Dr. West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018, one of the highest honors bestowed by the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC). The AFSPC press release hailed her as one of "the 'Hidden Figures' …who did computing for the US military in the era before electronic systems." Of her contributions, Dr. West has been quoted as saying "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.'”

Dr. West was named the Virginia State University “Alumna of the Year" in 2018. In the same year, the BBC selected her as one of the “100 Women of 2018.” In 2021, she was awarded the Prince Philip Medal by the UK's Royal Academy of Engineering, their highest individual honor. The same year, she was also awarded the Webby Lifetime Achievement Award for the development of satellite geodesy models.


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