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Women Engineers

Published: 30 May 2023

The Engineers gallery explores some of the ways engineers have used their skills of precision, visualisation, connectedness, and creativity to transform the world we live in. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the women behind the ground-breaking innovations on display and celebrate their contributions.

Gladys West

Gladys West is a mathematician whose work underpinned the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS). As a Black woman born in rural America under racial segregation, Gladys overcame tremendous obstacles in her life, and her work has transformed our everyday lives.

Gladys was born in Sutherland, Virginia, in 1930 to an African American farming family. Her excellent performance at high school secured her a scholarship, without which she wouldn’t have been able to afford university. She majored in mathematics at Virginia State College, a historically Black public university. Relatively few women studied mathematics at this time, and even fewer women of colour. After graduating in 1952, she spent a few years teaching maths and science before returning to Virginia State to complete a master’s degree.

US Navy/Wikimedia Commons Image source
Gladys West reviewing data from GPS, 1985

Shortly afterwards, Gladys took a job as a programmer at a naval base. She became one of only four Black employees, and the second ever Black woman programmer to work there. In the mid-1970s, Gladys programmed a computer to produce incredibly complex and accurate model of the shape of the Earth, accounting for variations in tides, gravitation, and other distorting forces. This model, known as a geoid, became the basis for GPS.

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A miniature atomic clock of the type devised for GPS satellites—on display in Engineers.

Marian Croak

Marian Croak is a pioneer in the field of telecommunications engineering, who holds over 200 patents. She is best known for the invention of VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol. VoIP is the technology which enables real-time audio and video calls over the Internet.

Marian was born in New York City, USA. As a child, her father built a chemistry set for her, and she believes this is what inspired her to pursue a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths).

Marian had a 30-year career at Bell Laboratories (later AT&T), a renowned American telecommunications research company. She worked in the Human Factors division, which was dedicated to studying how technology could be used to improve people’s lives. She began researching digital messaging networks, exploring whether different types of messaging software could communicate with each other. This led her and her team to the idea that voice data could be sent over the Internet, rather than conventional telephone networks. They created VoIP (voice over Internet protocol), which unlocked so many new ways to communicate. It enabled us to video chat, to have affordable phone calls with loved ones around the world, and work remotely and flexibly during Covid.

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VoIP technology is used by a variety of devices for a variety of purposes, from catching up with loved ones to having long-distance work meetings. For example, it’s used in this Apple 'iPhone 3G' smartphone in the Science Museum Group collection.

Alongside her ground-breaking work on VoIP, Marian worked on a text-to-donate system which has helped raise millions of dollars for charitable causes, such as disaster relief after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. She has worked at Google since 2014, where she now leads the Research Center for Responsible AI and Human Centered Technology. She is an advocate for racial justice and women in engineering.

Mary Jackson

Mary W. Jackson was a mathematician and engineer, best known for being NASA’s first Black female engineer. Throughout her career, Mary performed incredibly complex calculations by hand, analysing data from wind tunnel experiments to understand airflow around aircraft so as to optimise their design.

Mary was born in rural Virginia, USA, under segregation. After graduating from an all-Black high school with the highest honours, she attained a dual bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physical sciences. A few years later, she was recruited by NASA to work as a ‘human computer’. Human computers were skilled mathematicians, predominantly women and particularly African-American women, who performed all the complex calculations that underpinned NASA’s work, from rocket trajectories to aerodynamics.

After working for two years in the segregated West Area Computing section at NASA’s Langley Research Center, Mary was offered a chance to work with the Supersonic Pressure tunnel, a 60,000 horsepower wind tunnel capable of producing wind-speeds almost double the speed of sound, and used to test the aerodynamics of model aircraft. She gained experience conducting research, and her supervisor encouraged her to train as an engineer.

Mary Jackson with a model for wind tunnel experiments at Langley Research Center.

The training required was offered by a white-only high school, so Mary had to petition the local government to be allowed to attend. In 1958, after completing the course, she was promoted to aerospace engineer and became NASA’s first Black female engineer.

In her later career, Mary became a champion for equal opportunities, using her own experience to make a difference to women and people of colour in STEM roles. In 2016, her story was honoured in the blockbuster Hollywood film, ‘Hidden Figures’, which focuses on the contributions made by Black women at NASA, working against racist and sexist discrimination.

Larissa Suzuki

Larissa Suzuki is a computer scientist and engineer, who mainly works in the field of AI (artificial intelligence). She works at Google as a technical director exploring how AI can solve real-world problems, and also collaborates with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the development of the Interplanetary Internet.  The Interplanetary Internet is a communications network allowing us to connect over vast distances in space, and allowing for celestial movement between senders and receivers which would be incompatible with conventional Internet infrastructure.

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The Interplanetary Internet had its first space test onboard the UK-DMC1 satellite—this 1:20 scale model is on display in Engineers.

As a child, Larissa remembers taking her toys apart to see how they worked. She was fascinated with electronics, and imagined ways of making static things walk and dance. Toys like Lego allowed her to be creative and explore building and rebuilding structures, and to this day Larissa enjoys building robots out of Lego, realising her childhood fascination with making things move with electronics.

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Lego allows Larissa to combine her creativity with her love of electronics. One of her Lego robots is on display in the Engineers gallery.

While engineering felt like a natural choice when it came to studying at university, Larissa found it hard to choose exactly which branch of engineering to go into. She discovered computer science, and found that it was applicable to many of the different fields she was interested in. It would allow her to use engineering skills to connect different sciences and improve lives. She’s developed systems for smart cities, robots, healthcare, finance, and more. Alongside her research career, she is a professor and guest lecturer at several universities, an entrepreneur, and plays the violin and piano.

Larissa has autism and ADHD, and growing up, she struggled to find a sense of belonging. Throughout her career, she’s been dedicated to equality and diversity, especially in engineering. She believes embracing our differences allows us to bring our own unique contributions and capabilities.

Jennifer Leggett

Jennifer Leggett is a civil and structural engineer. She created the winning design for the 2013 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (QEPrize). Her design was inspired by trees, symbolising the growth of engineering, and the way that different elements work together in a system which is more than the sum of its parts. The Create the Trophy competition is open to young people aged 14-24 worldwide, and the winning design is manufactured and presented to that year’s winner of the QEPrize.

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Jennifer Leggett with her winning design for the 2013 QEPrize trophy, which is on display at the Science Museum.

Meeting eminent engineers through winning the Create the Trophy competition gave Jennifer an insight into the sector. She enjoyed maths at school, and saw engineering as an outlet for her creativity that would use maths, design and logic to create things that benefit society. She decided to study Civil and Structural Engineering at university, and while she was there, she was accepted onto a scholarship programme which supported summer internships across different areas of engineering.

In 2022, Jennifer became a Chartered Civil Engineer with the Institution of Civil Engineers, and is now a senior engineer in the offshore wind industry. As an engineer, she hopes to continue learning, make a difference in society, and support other aspiring engineers the way she was supported.

Jennifer Leggett at her chartership ceremony

As a student at a girls’ high school, Jennifer noticed she was one of only a handful of students choosing engineering, meaning she had to be particularly committed and proactive to achieve her goals of becoming an engineer. She hopes that engineers can speak up and be active allies for their peers in order to make the sector more inclusive, and show that anyone from any background can be an engineer.

Conclusion

While women have had a  long place in engineering, there is still work to be done in making the sector as inclusive as possible, enabling everyone to feel like they too can become an engineer. These women have overcome obstacles and struggles due to gender, race, and neurodiversity, and the impacts they have had are tremendous. From enabling world-changing innovations like GPS to advocacy for equality and diversity, women in engineering today continue to pave the way for future generations.