Going the Distance: How Dr. Gladys West Found Her Direction and Ours

In the September issue of our 'sySTEMic leaders' series, we're profiling the life and career of Dr. Gladys West. Rising through the ranks as one of the brightest minds of her time, Dr. West would eventually uncover the math that would serve as the foundation for the modern GPS. Her work helped the world discover its true sense of direction, though she had to fight to find direction in her own life.


The story of Dr. Gladys West is an age-old tale of grit, courage, and perseverance. A woman determined to find her own way, it's a story that begins and ends with a journey.

When a young Gladys Mae Brown stepped outside her front door in the morning, a 17-mile walk to school lay in front of her. Dressed in her Sunday best, the small-town girl from Dinwiddie County, Virginia made the trek each day--on foot--without fail. A feat that may have been daunting to some was alright for Brown, the girl who arrived to class on time with a skip in her step and a hunger to learn. She was on the road to becoming something greater than herself and, as time would tell, she was not afraid of a little distance.


Gladys Brown began this journey in 1930, born to farmers and sharecroppers in rural Virginia.[1] It was a decent, honest living that came with its share of limitations. Gladys grew up questioning the world around her, wondering if it was enough. With her mother working in a tobacco factory and her father between farming and railroad jobs, there didn’t seem to be much beyond the realm of their small-town life.[2] Life within this realm was also fraught with deep institutional turmoil, as being Black in a Jim Crow-era South meant Gladys and her family were subjected to heightened levels of institutional and interpersonal racism around every corner. But with as many challenges that came from living in that world, they never stopped Gladys from realizing that she could and should strive for more. Life for Gladys Mae had no clear path but finding one would start with those 17 miles.


From an early age, Gladys was a considerably bright child; but the older and more restless she became within the confines of Dinwiddie County, doing well in school would come to mean a lot more. At her high school, the two highest-performing students received an incredible opportunity--full scholarships to what was then known as Virginia State College. Gladys recognized from early on that securing one of those spots was one of the fastest tickets out of town, and perhaps one of the only guarantees towards a better path. She committed to her studies and excelled, quickly rising to the top of her class as a force to be reckoned with. The work would eventually pay off, with Gladys graduating as valedictorian and receiving one of those coveted scholarships at VSU.[3]

Upon starting her freshman year, she again had no clear direction in front of her. She would eventually discover her interest in math through the encouragement of others, a decision which would begin a deep love affair.[4] Campus was new and exciting and difficult, but Gladys continued to do exactly what she knew how--excel. She kept her head in the books without neglecting the community around her, becoming a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.[5] Life was beginning to take shape for Gladys, with VSU opening her eyes to a world of possibilities and untapped potential within herself. This would carry her through her time on campus until completing her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics in 1952.[6]

Her time at VSU helped Gladys fully realize her love of math, one she planned to continue exploring through earning a Master’s. When met with the financial realities of this decision, Gladys again found herself without a clear path in front of her; so, she decided to make her own. She worked for two years teaching high school math and science, slowly but surely saving up enough money to make her return to VSU and earn her Master’s, which she did in 1955.[7] Life beyond VSU was even more unsure. The 1940s and 50s saw the rapid expansion of research and development efforts for the blossoming world of STEM, but prospects for Black women were hard to come by and even harder to secure. Gladys didn’t let herself be discouraged for long, having made it this far against all odds as the small-town girl from Dinwiddie. She took a chance on applying for a position at the Naval Weapons Laboratory, who was at that point in desperate need of capable mathematicians. Regardless of the obstacles, her resume and ability were enough to appeal to the right person at the right time; Gladys got the job.[8]

Beginning her tenure at the Naval Weapons Academy as one of only four Black employees was an incredible period of transition for Gladys, giving her the space to hone her ability and shine above the rest. Still, it was a tough transition being one of the only Black women at the helm. She would eventually catch the eye of another rising star by the name of Ira West, a man whom she would quickly fall in love with and eventually marry. The Wests lived and worked alongside one another during a period of incredible expansion within what was becoming modern STEM.

The following years would signal incredible growth and development for Gladys, making a name for herself by tackling some of the industry’s toughest and most rapidly-evolving challenges of that time. Throughout the 1960s, Gladys would help facilitate work that would go on to prove the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune.[9] Entering the world of STEM during the Space Race, much of what West was charged with doing centered around uncovering gravitational pulls and orbits, fostering a deeper astronomical understanding of Earth.[10] The work in and of itself is still daunting by today’s standards, but doing it in a time before much of what we consider modern technology meant she, effectively, was the computer.

Still, it wasn’t until working as a project manager for the Seasat project that Gladys truly took a step down a new kind of path, one that would eventually place her in the history books forever. The Seasat project centered around one of the first satellites to use ocean tides as means to measure distance, a concept with theoretical frameworks that were still developing at that time. Gladys saw something in this project and the foundational logic it was built on. At that time, accurately pinpointing distances on Earth’s surface was a challenge as a result of its inconsistent shapes, that which required a mathematical model complex enough to accommodate these properties.[11] The time she spent on this project became a spark for a new kind of thinking, the possibility of something bigger than just ocean tides. Gladys had all the training and intuition at her hands but lacked any kind of clear direction. Where does she go with this? How does she use all of this? Is it crazy enough to try? Nevertheless, she thought so. The blood, sweat, and tears she poured into this crazy idea would eventually give birth to an unprecedented mathematical model, one that, for the first time, laid out the correct shape of Earth referred to as a “geoid”[12]

Reading this through the lens of STEM jargon can make it lose its luster, or perhaps not properly underscore just how unthinkable this was. The scientific community at large had, up until that point, no clear consensus for what the shape of our planet amounted to, not having the mathematical skill or foresight to properly put the pieces together. Gladys cracked the code; and as years went on and technology became more and more advanced, her model would lend itself to the creation of what would later become our Global Positioning System.[13] Yes; the small-town girl from Dinwiddie, Virginia had discovered the math that would help develop the GPS.

As is unfortunately all too common in the world of STEM, Gladys West had gone years without properly receiving credit for the gravity of the work she produced and her contributions to the industry. She finished out an exceptional career and retired in 1988, with much of the world unaware of just what she had done to change the course of human history.[14] By another more tragic turn of events, she would soon thereafter suffer a stroke that would put her life on pause. Coming out of it on the other side, not even this could phase her vivacious spirit and hunger for more. She devoted herself to recovery, building back her mental and physical strength and again finding herself doing the unthinkable--beginning a Ph.D. program that she would go on to finish in 2018, driven by the love and support of her husband, Ira.[15] It was around this time that media outlets and the scientific community began to properly champion Gladys as she deserved, and she would soon be inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame by the United States Air Force at the Pentagon.[16] Finally, a proper celebration for the woman who did so much and expected so little.

There’s a lot to be taken from the unexpected and unprecedented life of Gladys West. It’s a story of hardship and circumstance, which ultimately shaped grit and glory. It’s a story of perseverance and exceptionalism in every facet of life. But ultimately, it’s not just a story; it’s a journey--one that began with 17 miles, and no clear path in front of it. Being born Gladys Mae Brown and then becoming Dr. Gladys West was not a straight shot; the road to success was paved with bumps, zigged and zagged, and did not come with signs or signals. Her journey as a Black woman and as a mathematician serve as an example of a ‘sySTEMic leader’, particularly in the way it reaffirms commitment to forging one’s own path through courage and conviction. Whether it was through rising to the top of her class, securing her degrees, landing her first job, or setting out on the very work that would define a new generation of humanity, Gladys West dared to think and dared to dream. At a time when living as a Black woman came with threats and challenges around every corner, she carved a lane for herself within spaces not designed for her. She found her own path, her own purpose, and her own direction in life, one that would ironically open up the world to discovering its own direction in the form of the GPS.

For Black women entering STEM, the road is often plagued with challenges both personal and institutional. Many move through the industry unsure of where to go, insecure in their abilities, and questioning the validity of their curiosity. Let this be an example of how and why to keep pushing. To keep studying the material. To keep moving through the ranks. To keep dreaming of what could be when others say it’s impossible. Dr. Gladys West changed history by finding her own path, her own direction in life.


A journey of 17 miles can lead to a world of new possibilities, but only if you have the strength and courage to take that first step. May you never look back.

For more of our 'sySTEMic leaders' series, visit https://www.systemicflow.com/blog/categories/systemic-leaders

Footnotes [1] Lauren Mackenzie Reynolds. “Meet Dr. Gladys West, the hidden figure behind your phone’s GPS.” Massive Science, December 25, 2019. https://massivesci.com/articles/science-heroes-gps-hidden-figures-scientist-women-physics-math/ [2] Wikipedia. “Gladys West” Wikipedia, June 24, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gladys_West [3] Lauren Mackenzie Reynolds. “Meet Dr. Gladys West, the hidden figure behind your phone’s GPS.” Massive Science, December 25, 2019. https://massivesci.com/articles/science-heroes-gps-hidden-figures-scientist-women-physics-math [4] Wikipedia. “Gladys West” Wikipedia, June 24, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gladys_West [5] Charmaine Griffin. “Dr. Gladys West, Who Helped Develop The GPS, Inducted Into Air Force Space And Missile Pioneers Hall Of FameBlativity, December 18, 2018, https://blavity.com/dr-gladys-west-who-helped-develop-the-gps-inducted-into-air-force-space-and-missile-pioneers-hall-of-fame?category1=technology&category2=news [6] Wikipedia. “Gladys West” Wikipedia, June 24, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gladys_West [7] Lauren Mackenzie Reynolds. “Meet Dr. Gladys West, the hidden figure behind your phone’s GPS.” Massive Science, December 25, 2019. https://massivesci.com/articles/science-heroes-gps-hidden-figures-scientist-women-physics-math [8] XYHT, “Dr. Gladys West”, XYHT, July 1, 2019, https://www.xyht.com/gnsslocation-tech/dr-gladys-west/ [9] Lauren Mackenzie Reynolds. “Meet Dr. Gladys West, the hidden figure behind your phone’s GPS.” Massive Science, December 25, 2019. https://massivesci.com/articles/science-heroes-gps-hidden-figures-scientist-women-physics-math [10] XYHT, “Dr. Gladys West”, XYHT, July 1, 2019, https://www.xyht.com/gnsslocation-tech/dr-gladys-west/ [11] Lauren MackenzieReynolds. “Meet Dr. Gladys West, the hidden figure behind your phone’s GPS.” Massive Science, December 25, 2019. https://massivesci.com/articles/science-heroes-gps-hidden-figures-scientist-women-physics-math [12] Ibid. [13] XYHT, “Dr. Gladys West”, XYHT, July 1, 2019, https://www.xyht.com/gnsslocation-tech/dr-gladys-west/ [14] Lauren Mackenzie Reynolds. “Meet Dr. Gladys West, the hidden figure behind your phone’s GPS.” Massive Science, December 25, 2019. https://massivesci.com/articles/science-heroes-gps-hidden-figures-scientist-women-physics-math [15] Lauren Mackenzie Reynolds. “Meet Dr. Gladys West, the hidden figure behind your phone’s GPS.” Massive Science, December 25, 2019. https://massivesci.com/articles/science-heroes-gps-hidden-figures-scientist-women-physics-math [16] Charmaine Griffin. “Dr. Gladys West, Who Helped Develop The GPS, Inducted Into Air Force Space And Missile Pioneers Hall Of FameBlativity, December 18, 2018, https://blavity.com/dr-gladys-west-who-helped-develop-the-gps-inducted-into-air-force-space-and-missile-pioneers-hall-of-fame?category1=technology&category2=news

Sources

Reynolds, Lauren Mackenzie. “Meet Dr. Gladys West, the hidden figure behind your phone’s GPS.” Massive Science, December 25, 2019. Accessed September 2020. https://massivesci.com/articles/science-heroes-gps-hidden-figures-scientist-women-physics-math/

XYHT, “Dr. Gladys West”, XYHT, July 1, 2019. Accessed September 2020. https://www.xyht.com/gnsslocation-tech/dr-gladys-west/

Griffin, Charmaine. “Dr. Gladys West, Who Helped Develop The GPS, Inducted Into Air Force Space And Missile Pioneers Hall Of FameBlativity, December 18, 2018. Accessed September 2020. https://blavity.com/dr-gladys-west-who-helped-develop-the-gps-inducted-into-air-force-space-and-missile-pioneers-hall-of-fame?category1=technology&category2=news

Wikipedia. “Gladys West” Wikipedia, June 24, 2020. Accessed September 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gladys_West

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