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Trends for Female Scientists and Technologists  May 5th, 2014

There have been other women inventors with similar careers and technology paths during the time period of Ms. Thomas. Another woman, Grace Murray Hopper, was the innovator of the computer compiler with efforts from 1952-1957. In 1975, another woman in NASA, Barbara Askins, invented the autoradiograph, which was a photographic technique. Another woman aerospace engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Jeanne Lee Crews, invented the Space Bumper in the 1980’s. It is patented and belongs to NASA and helps to protect or shield spacecraft from orbital space debris. The space shuttle escape pole was invented by Margaret Grimaldi in 1986. Jane Malin invented the Discrete Event Stimulation Tool for Anyalysis of Qualitative Models of Continuous Processing Systems (for NASA) in 1990. Eve Abrams Wooldridge invented a device to precisely measure space contamination in 1991. Hatice Cullingford invented an Apparatus and Method for Cellulose Processing Using Microwave Pretreatment (recycling in space) for NASA in 1993. (Thimmesh, 2000) All of these women, however, were not African American. Valerie Thomas was a trailblazer for her culture and women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), which is an educational trend being given lots of emphasis in the last few years.

In 1989, SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women 6, no. 2 had Ms. Thomas’ article about Black Women Engineers and Technologists. (Weisbard, 1993) It was also an article published in A Hammer in Their Hands (Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution, 2005) giving a unique historical perspective on this dual identity of the engineering discipline and also the Black women in the workforce. Even though the Morrill Act was passed in 1863 to federally subsidize agriculture and mechanical/technical schools, the number of U.S. engineering schools were not generally in the South where the highest concentrations of Blacks were. And Blacks were also not admitted in the South until post WWII. Black women were employed in the workforce, but mostly in domestic and agricultural work until WWI brought industrial opportunities their way until the men came back from war. President Roosevelt was also instrumental in an executive order that prohibited discrimination in the federal government and in defense industries in about 1941. The first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. was in 1942. Table 16.2 in this article shows Black women firsts in science and technology in graphs and charts. (see bibliography) Ms. Thomas was the first Black woman National President in 1984 of the National Technical Association, Inc. (NTA). Founded in Chicago in 1925, NTA is the nation’s oldest minority engineering and technical society. Ms. Thomas did a wonderful job of researching engineering and technical careers for African-American women in this article.

In the March/April 1993 Black Collegian she wrote Career opportunities for mathematicians (Thomas V. , 1993) and explained how her math knowledge had been used at NASA/GSFC toward the development and support of computer systems that solved space-related problems or activities. She credited her undergraduate preparation in problem solving, critical thinking, logic, and abstract algebra as the key to her successful mastering of new technologies. She also identified trends that would be significant for African Americans with strong math backgrounds in the 21st century workforce. She also advocated for African-American mathematicians to give back to their communities by helping prepare others through teaching math and helping them understand the connections between other disciplines and using technological tools to help with instruction.

Again in the November/December 1993 Black Collegian she also wrote about Careers in Computer Science. (Thomas V. , Careers in Computer Science, 1993) Dr. Thomas recognized that corporations and government agencies were downsizing, but encouraged those who would be college graduates with computer science skills not to be discouraged as the right combination of strong computer science background and experience and a good attitude was going to help that person excel in a computer science career. She noted that computers were everywhere and that because they were decreasing in size and increasing in power, new uses for them would continue to be found. Dr. Thomas noted two basic career options for non-teaching careers as systems analysts, which required a B.S. degree or computer programmers, which required a strong interest and familiarity with computers. She noted that rapidly changing technology would require constant continuing education. Her other career alternatives focused on entrepreneurship or consulting, especially for African-American students to pursue in the African and Caribbean countries, where telephone and satellite communications were helping with prosperity initiatives. She cautioned that competition is stiff, so to take your training and work seriously.

Link up to employment and entrepreneurial opportunities (Thomas V. , Link up to employment and entrepreneurial opportunities, 1994) was an article Dr. Thomas wrote about computer science vocational guidance. This was an article about openings because of attrition, advantages of being a college graduate with an advanced degree and changes in the global market. She mentioned the places where computer specialists would be working: computer and data service companies, government agencies, computer equipment manufacturers, insurance companies, universities and other agencies. Ms. Thomas gave her greatest consideration to entrepreneurship, because there are so many emerging major technologies for the masses. She contended that information will be put on-line so service providers would be needed. She suggested that entrepreneurs be well prepared, mastering technical skills and being known in your field for quality work, knowing about trends and also having a support system of people or a company to subcontract with that you can trust. Business classes and/or an MBA would also help in gaining a track record. She also recommended contacting the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation or the Melvin Foote Constituency for Africa and gave a list of the top 10 computer science employers as well as two other associations for African American information.

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