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The scientists who inspired us (XI): Dorothy Vaughan

In honour of Women in Science, at the Basque Center for Applied Mathematics - BCAM we have come up with the idea of sharing some stories about the women that inspired our researchers to pursue a career in science. Keep reading to understand why Onintze Zaballa was fascinated by Dorothy Vaughan and how she inspired her life:

About the author:

Onintze Zaballa

PhD Student at BCAM

Onintze is a second year PhD student in the Machine Learning research line at BCAM. Her project is focused on sequence modeling techniques applied to medical data.
I got fascinated the first time I read Hidden Figures, a book based on a true story where a group of women overcame every gender and racial barrier that arose in their research carriers. The book tells about three African American female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped promote some of America’s greatest achievements in space.

One of these woman was Dorothy Vaughan, an American mathematician and computer programmer born in 1910. She made important contributions to the early years of the U.S. space program and was the first African American manager at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), later called NASA.

Dorothy decided to pursue a career as a research mathematician, although this was a difficult field for women to enter. The first job she found was as mathematics teacher in Virginia. She left the teaching work in 1943 and she joined NACA’s West Area Computing unit, a group of African American female mathematicians who were considered “human computers”. Their aim was to perform complex computations and analyzing data for aerospace engineers by hand, using tools of the time. The West Computers, as the women of this group were known, provided data that were later crucial to the success of the U.S. space program. At that time, NACA was segregrated, and black employees were forced to use separate bathrooms and dining facilities. Despite these conditions, Dorothy was promoted to lead the group of the West Computers in 1949. While the racial and gender barriers were always there, she became NACA’s first black supervisor and one of its few female supervisors. Dorothy served as head of the West Computers until 1958, when NACA made the transition to NASA, and the segregated facilities were abolished, including the West Computing office. After that, Dorothy and many other West Computers joined the NASA Analysis and Computation Division, a new racially and gender-integrated group. By then, the space program had begun using electronic computers, and Dorothy became an expert at FORTRAN, a computer programming language used for scientific and algebraic applications. She also contributed to the space program through her work on the Scout Launch Vehicle Program. Finally, Dorothy retired from NASA in 1971.

In 2019, Vaughan was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Also in 2019, Vaughan crater on the far side of the Moon was named in her honor. In 2020, a satellite named after her was launched into space.

I heard the first time about Dorothy while reading the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. The author drew attention to the contributions of Dorothy and other West Computers, including Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson. Her outstanding career and her dedication to her work inspired me to pursue a career in research, even though my chosen field of study is not closely related to hers. Doubtlessly, she is a role model, since she fought for her rights and demonstrated that no obstacle can take down your dreams.