Uncovering Stories of Science in the Flint River

Hannah Palmer comes from a town that disappeared.

As a child growing up just south of Atlanta in Mountain View, she watched as the steady expansion of Atlanta’s airport slowly took over her neighborhood. The constant roar of jets made Mountain View one of the most noise-impacted neighborhoods in the world; as the airport continued to grow, residents slowly sold their homes to the airport planning agency and left. Soon the city itself was dissolved, removing a physical place from the map but leaving behind a vibrant, if dispersed, community.

The town of Mountain View wasn’t the only thing taken over by the relentless expansion that made Hartsfield-Jackson the busiest airport in the world and transformed Atlanta into a global city. Buried beneath the mammoth airport – under the fifth runway, to be exact – is a tributary of the Flint River, which runs almost 350 miles through Georgia until it joins the Chattahoochee River and flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

Palmer first discovered the Flint River when researching her book Flight Path: A Search for Roots Beneath the World’s Busiest Airport. The book chronicles her search for what became of the community she grew up in – one almost entirely displaced by the growth of the airport.

The history of Palmer’s community echoes that of the Flint River, which has also been overshadowed and buried – literally – by the development of the airport. Even as the airport brought enormous benefits to Atlanta, providing jobs and connecting us to the world, it also threatened to erase the very things that connect us to the place we live.

Palmer now seeks to restore connections between the physical space the airport occupies and the communities that surround it. She sees herself as a storyteller, preserving and sharing the things that make our home more than just a physical place. Science is a central character in these stories, a constant presence in the intimate connections between physical places, the natural world, and the things that make us human. “I love to hear people who remember baptisms, or some urban legends or rites of passage that involve [the Flint River],” she says. “I love to think about times when it was more connected to our lives.”

Finding the Flint

Her research led her to Finding the Flint, a project dedicated to protecting and raising awareness of the Flint River created by American Rivers, The Conservation Fund, and the Atlanta Regional Commission. Part of Finding the Flint’s mission is to build awareness of the natural world and how it influences our communities – a task inextricably connected to science.

Indeed, Palmer sees science as a key element in creating safer infrastructure, building a sense of place, and working toward environmental justice. “How do we clean up this river? What do we do with this landfill? How do we develop alongside this runway or this highway? We can’t turn our backs on these places – they’re not isolated from the rest of the city.”

Palmer’s role at Finding the Flint is one of a science communicator, community organizer, and coalition builder. She works with scientists, engineers, architects, and planners, bringing together stakeholders from environmental groups and local governments to airport planners  and Delta Airlines. The group hopes to work with regional and airport planners to make the airport more than just an engine for economic growth, but also the basis for a thriving community – a place of its own, not just a place people pass through to get somewhere else.

The group works to more deeply involve the public in the health of our watersheds, sponsoring scavenger-hunt-like tours of Flint tributaries, cleanups in the often-overlooked natural areas surrounding the airport, and outreach to airport-area employees. A recent weekend found Palmer organizing the Southside River Rendezvous, where participants learned how to collect water samples, then scattered across Atlanta to sample water quality in dozens of creeks. Finding the Flint hopes that these types of events better connect the public with the people and organizations who advocate for the health of their watersheds, and help build awareness of the natural resources that we often take for granted.

Ultimately, Palmer sees science as a key tool in building connections between people, places, and the environment. “It’s going to be scientists who help solve these problems – who design technologies to extract contaminants from the soil, who design technologies to detect air pollution and noise pollution. These are the landscapes that we’ve inherited, and there’s a huge opportunity to think differently.”

Environmental Action, One Community at a Time

By Christina Buffo

After Dr. Yomi Noibi wrote a newsletter article about toxic chemicals in waterways, the previous Executive Director of Environmental Community Action (ECO-Action) tore it up. Dr. Noibi had written the article following the usual practice taught by his extensive scientific training – a PhD in environmental science from the University of Iowa followed by teaching positions at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Lagos, and Clark University – and he had given equal weight to the communities affected and the companies producing toxic chemicals. And that’s where he had gone wrong. Most publications tended to center the companies and rarely the people affected. “We have to write our own story,” says Noibi, ECO-Action’s current Executive Director.

“Community” is central to the name for a reason: ECO-Action focuses on helping people living in disenfranchised areas across Georgia and changes priorities based on community needs. In Taylor County, they shifted from pollution-fighting to political organizing when residents told ECO-Action that there hadn’t been a local election for ten years. Many volunteers, including Noibi, worked with local organizers and outside legal experts to push for an election in a community- and Black-led initiative. This shift in goals required bringing in new expertise, ECO-Action’s specialty. According to Noibi, the key step in organizing is to “connect people to people that can bring about change.”

And bring about change they did. The combined efforts of Taylor County citizens, lawyers, and ECO-Action resulted in an election, and the voters elected the first few African Americans to the Taylor County Board of Commissioners, ensuring that the board demographics better reflected that of the county. The new board members could then act on environmental issues.

Learning Together

Organizing is always a learning process. No one person or field could have addressed all the problems in Taylor County, but a coalition of people with different backgrounds and skills had a major impact. ECO-Action does not market itself as the entire solution: it’s simply the catalyst that makes these connections, and then everything else, happen.

The importance of learning from others applies beyond doctors, lawyers, and scientists. ECO-Action hosts discussion groups for different generations of Atlanta area residents to discuss local concerns together. Dr. Noibi says that these groups are founded with the idea that everyone, from a six-year-old to her grandparents, has an important perspective on their living environment and issues present in it, and that only through learning from each other can action occur. In Dr. Noibi’s words, “We have to work and learn together. First we have to learn together. Then we have to work together.”

ECO-Action Programming

Many participants in ECO-Action’s programs, such as the Intergenerational Learning Group and the Community Watershed Learning Group, mention their surprise that environmental concerns are only part of the program.  A training or discussion group isn’t solely about sewage leaks, or tire dumping, or floodwater management. “It’s about injustice,” says Noibi. “It’s about thinking outside the box, because you cannot address environmental problems with the current framework of thinking.”

Part of the shift outside of this current framework needs to be legal. In alleged water contamination, the people affected often are legally required to demonstrate the presence of pollutants. This, emphasizes Noibi, is unfair for many reasons. First, the people living in a contaminated area may not have access to pollutant testing or the money to pay for it. Second, some chemicals may be toxic in smaller amounts than current laws suggest, and the health consequences of other pollutants may not yet be clear. Lead from water pipes, for example, was considered safe at one time. Most importantly, the burden of proof falls unjustly on the people impacted, who already suffer health damage from pollution. The brutal reality is, says Noibi, that at the end of the day, “we’re the ones exposed, we’re the ones burying the body.”

The other important step towards a more just world lies in the perception of science. Scientific training emphasizes a “science as solution” mindset at the expense of considering how science results are used. A more just outlook, suggests Noibi, would involve thinking “that science is the answer, no. Science is a tool to help get the answer. The answer is in the people.”

Celebrating Native American Heritage Month

Collage of three books: Whale Snow by Chie Sakakibara, Fresh Banana Leaves by Jessica Hernandez, and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Before there were laboratories and maker spaces, there was only the earth and what it contained and produced. The lens through which indigenous people made sense of the world came from their relationship with the land. While technological and scientific progress expands our knowledge and understanding in important and astonishing ways, Native American scientists and cultural leaders simultaneously illustrate the way indigenous intelligence adds a vital perspective to modern science. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer is among the voices drawing attention to this significant intersection. Her work demonstrates how science is, above all, a way of knowing, and, as such, can be intertwined and enhanced by integrating the other ways of knowing scientists bring with them – religious, racial, linguistic, cultural, and beyond. Her gorgeous and acclaimed book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2017) weaves scientific and indigenous stories together. Kimmerer is part of a vital and growing community of scientists illustrating how indigenous knowledge and methods are central to their scientific explorations. 

This work provides a different lens through which to think about scientific information, one that dissolves the sense of otherness in objects of scientific inquiry and invites the expertise and experiences of different fields and cultures to contribute to the enterprise of science. It emphasizes the reciprocity of our relationship with the things we study and use for study, and imagines, as Kimmerer writes, “a time when the intellectual monoculture of science will be replaced with a polyculture of complementary knowledges” (139). 

One way we can make science more accessible and equitable is to recognize how it intersects with other bodies of knowledge and the experiences of groups typically underrepresented in scientific careers. By widening the lens through which we think and communicate about science, we also expand which information or ideas are considered relevant to scientific ways of knowing.  

During Native American Heritage Month, Science ATL encourages you to explore some of these or other investigations at the intersection of indigenous and scientific knowledge:

Jocelyn Bell Burnell: Paving the Way for Female Astronomers

Collage of Jocelyn Bell Burnell with colorful overlay

By Sarah Strassler


Women should not have to do all of the adapting. It is time for society to move toward women, not women toward society” – Jocelyn Bell Burnell

When a star dies, it leaves behind a stellar “corpse” in the form of a dense core with a strong magnetic field – more than 10,000 times stronger than the magnets used at the junkyard to lift cars. As the core rotates, the magnetic field creates a beam of electromagnetic waves, like a cosmic lighthouse.

In 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell became the first scientist to observe the radio signals from pulsars. These pulsars have been important tools that allow us to navigate space, test the laws of physics, and potentially communicate with extraterrestrial life! However, when the Nobel Prize was awarded in 1974 for the discovery of pulsars, Bell Burnell’s name was omitted from the recipients list largely due to her gender.

Early Life: Paving the Way for Female Astronomers

Jocelyn Bell Burnell was born in Northern Ireland in 1943, a time when only men were encouraged to be scientists. However, Bell Burnell’s parents were educated Quakers who encouraged her interest in science by taking her on trips to the nearby observatory. She taught herself astronomy at an early age using her father’s textbooks and fought the school system alongside her parents until they allowed her to attend lab instead of the homemaking classes girls were placed in. By the end of one semester, Bell Burnell ranked first in her class.

While earning her bachelor’s degree, she was the only female enrolled in honors physics and was constantly teased by her male classmates. After graduation, she continued her education at Cambridge University where she was one of two women in her graduate program. “Surely they’re going to realize I’m not bright enough,” she thought to herself. “But until they throw me out, I’m going to work my very hardest.”

While in graduate school, Bell Burnell worked under Dr. Andrew Hewish, an astronomer who needed a sharp student capable of building a telescope to help him scan the sky for the radio waves produced by quasars. It was using this newly built telescope that Bell Burnell discovered the first pulsar.

Discovering the First Pulsar Waves

On November 28th, 1967, Bell Burnell detected an “unclassifiable squiggle” while checking the telescope readouts by hand. However, Hewish dismissed it, insisting it was simply interference. Determined to solve the mystery, Bell Burnell remained focused on the squiggle, which pulsed in a remarkably regular pattern. Then she noticed a second pulse coming from a different region of the sky and knew that it was not something to be ignored. These incredibly regular pulses were coming from pulsars which now serve as comic “lighthouses”: important points of consistency in the ever-changing cosmos that help astronomers to navigate space.

The discovery of pulsars was published in Nature, science’s most esteemed journal, with Hewish’s name appearing first on the author list. During interviews, Hewish received all of the scientific questions while the questions for Bell Burnell focused on her body dimensions and dating life. In 1974, Hewish and another astronomer, Martin Ryle, received the Nobel Prize in physics with Hewish receiving credit for discovering pulsars.

However, Bell Burnell said she harbors no ill will toward the Nobel committee, focusing instead on the countless other awards she has received. She had an esteemed career in academia where she was named Commander and Dame of the Order of the British Empire. Bell Burnell also received the Oppenheimer prize in 1978 and the Heschel Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1989. She has served as president for countless institutes and societies and has honorary degrees from universities too numerous to mention.

Supporting Women and Minorities in Science

In 2018, Bell Burnell received the Breakthrough Prize for her discovery of pulsars and was awarded £2.3 million. Instead of keeping the money, Bell Burnell donated the money to create scholarships for women, underrepresented minorities, and refugees who want to study physics.  Bell Burnell stated, “I reckon I discovered pulsars in large part because I was a minority person [at Cambridge]. And I have a strong suspicion that other minority people might have similar feelings and work equally hard and discover things.” 

Untold Story Celebrating Pride: Alan Hart

Collage of Alan Hart with blue and pink gradient overlay

Tuberculosis (TB) is a disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis which attacks the lungs and can spread to other organs if left untreated. TB is contagious and is spread through airborne particles such as those released when an infected person coughs or sneezes. As you can imagine, our ability to stop the spread of TB is dependent on our ability to identify infected individuals.

Alan Hart, an American radiologist and the first transgender man to undergo a sex reassignment surgery in the United States, discovered that x-rays could be used to detect early TB infections in patients before they became contagious.

Alan Hart: Early Life and the First Sex Reassignment Surgery

Alan Hart was born on October 4, 1890 and was assigned female at birth. Hart was an accomplished writer and published many works under his male pseudonym Robert Allen Bamford. Hart started medical school at University of Oregon in 1912 where he became the first female to win the Saylor medal. This award recognized the individual with the highest standings across all departments.

Although Hart had been going by his chosen name Robert and dressing masculine, it was not until 1917 that Hart underwent a hysterectomy and legally changed his name.  This made Alan Hart the first transgender man to undergo sex reassignment surgery in the United States. After living a somewhat transient life moving from city to city, Hart earned a master’s degree in radiology from the University of Pennsylvania and took a job as Director of Radiology at Tacoma General Hospital in 1928.

Early Tuberculosis Detection that Saves Lives   

While working in the radiology department of Tacoma General Hospital, Alan Hart recognized that although patients who had obvious TB infections were being treated, no one was getting ahead of the disease to manage the spread from asymptomatic patients. Hart began pioneering efforts to use x-rays machines to detect early TB infections.

The images taken using x-rays allowed doctors to see any abnormalities or damage to the lung tissue caused by the bacteria. Although x-rays had been utilized previously to locate gunshots and bone fractures during World War I, it was relatively novel at the time to use x-rays to screen for a disease in an asymptomatic patient. X-ray machines became a critical tool to screen for TB infections, allowing patients to be treated sooner, which often saved their lives. Early detection also meant that patients could be isolated earlier, lessening the spread of tuberculosis overall and minimizing outbreaks.

Establishing Clinics to Screen for Tuberculosis

By 1937, Hart was named Idaho’s Tuberculosis Control Officer. Hart established Idaho’s first in-place and mobile TB screening clinics to spearhead the state’s war against tuberculosis. Considering the stigma surrounding TB at the time, Hart named his clinics “chest clinics” to allow patients to discreetly get the help that they needed. Because of his own story experiencing discrimination as a transgender man, Hart could empathize with patients who struggled with stigmatization.

Antibiotics to treat TB were not invented until the 1940s. However, techniques developed by Hart to screen for early TB infections had already managed to decrease the death toll from tuberculosis significantly!

Patricia Bath: Changing the Game for Cataract Surgery

Photo collage of Dr. Patricia Bath with a colorful gradient overlay

“The ability to restore sight is the ultimate reward.” – Patricia Bath

By Sarah Strassler

The National Eye Institute reports that by the age of 75, almost half of all Americans have cataracts that affect their vision. As you get older, some of the proteins in your eye start to break down and cause the build-up of a cloudy blemish that we now know as a cataract. These blemishes develop slowly over time and make your vision blurry or dimmed. As you can imagine, the earlier surgeries to manually remove the physical obstruction required incredible precision and could lead to blindness if not done properly. 

A Revolutionary Invention

In 1981, Patricia Bath had the idea to develop a new device that would use a laser to remove cataracts, allowing for a less invasive procedure that was more precise and would significantly cut down the recovery time for patients. Her idea was more advanced than the technology at the time and took nearly five years of research and clinical trials to develop and patent. In 1988, Bath received her first patent for the Laserphaco probe. The probe can be inserted into a tiny 1-millimeter incision in the eye and then a laser is used to very quickly vaporize the cataract. The decomposed lens can then be easily extracted and a new one inserted. This technology has helped restore vision to people who have been blind for over 30 years!

The Laserphaco probe is approved by the FDA in the United States and has been used internationally in Canada, Japan, and several European countries. Bath retired from the UCLA Medical Center in 1993 and was the first woman to be appointed to the honorary medical staff.  

Developing A System for Community Ophthalmology

Patricia Bath was born in 1942 in Harlem to Gladys Bath and Rupert Bath, the first black motorman in the New York City Subway system. Bath’s interest in science began very early on when her mother, a housewife and domestic worker, bought her a chemistry set.  At the age of 16, people had already started  to recognize Patricia Bath’s scientific innovation with her findings from a cancer research workshop being incorporated in a scientific paper. Bath earned a Bachelor’s Degree from Hunter College in 1964 and went on to attend Medical School at Howard University .

While doing an internship at Harlem Howard University, Bath conducted a study that discovered that blindness among black patients was double that among white patients. She attributed the prevalence of blindness to a lack of access to ophthalmology care, or eye care, and therefore developed a new discipline known as community ophthalmology. Her goal was to develop a program that would offer vision tests and screen for eye conditions in underserved populations. Her outreach programs saved the sight of thousands of individuals and helped students succeed in school by identifying children in need of eyeglasses

Thanks to her efforts, Harlem Hospital’s eye clinic began performing ophthalmic surgeries. She continued to volunteer here as an assistant surgeon and expanded her efforts to support more global initiatives to provide primary eye care to all people through the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. 

Prevent Blindness Georgia is a local organization that provides free eye care services like the ones Patricia Bath advocated for! Visit their website for more information.

Discover more Untold Science Stories from Science ATL.

Benjamin Banneker, the First African-American Man of Science

Colorful collage of historic figure, Benjamin Banneker

“Presumption should never make us neglect that which appears easy to us, nor despair make us lose courage at the sight of difficulties.” – Benjamin Banneker

Is there a school in your neighborhood named after a person but you don’t know anything about them? In honor of Black History Month, we want to introduce you to Benjamin Banneker, for which Banneker High School in South Fulton County is named. Since the founders of a school selected him for whom to name the school, it comes as no surprise that Banneker is remembered for his curiosity and pursuit of knowledge. He has been called the First African-American Man of Science.

Meet Benjamin Banneker

Banneker (1731-1806) was the son of freed slaves who had long suffered under the laws of slavery and indentured servitude. In spite of these obstacles, Banneker pursued education wherever he could find it and learned to read and write, which was uncommon among African-American youth at the time. 

He was able to read books on mechanical engineering and mathematics, so he challenged his mind in these subjects by creating math problems for himself to solve. When possible, he would take different machines apart to better understand how they worked. In 1753, he famously borrowed a watch from his neighbor, took it apart, and sketched it to learn how it worked. He then combined these sketches with his knowledge of sundials, the only other time-keeping device he had seen prior, to build a clock out of wood. His handmade clock, one of a few made in the U.S. at the time, ran accurately for 50 years until it was destroyed in a fire. 

Night-time Studies

This interest in time-keeping led him to begin sleeping during the day, so he could study the stars in an observatory he built and learn more about astronomy. This knowledge, combined with all he learned about climate from his years farming, inspired him to begin writing almanacs.

“Never abandon your vision. Keep reaching to further your dreams.”

Benjamin Banneker’s Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia almanack and ephemeris was published from 1791 until 1797. (The Poor Richard’s Almanac, written by a more well-known white Benjamin, Benjamin Franklin, was published from 1733-1758.) At the time, many homes had just two books – a Bible and an Almanac. Banneker’s almanac predicted eclipses and other astronomical events, weather forecasts, tides, sunrises and sunsets, etc. along with other writings, including anti-slavery material. 

An Age of Reason and Science for All

Historians believe the almanacs of this period, referred to now as the American Enlightenment, helped the working classes learn about the relevance of science to their daily lives by familiarizing them with scientific figures, terms, and methodologies. In the 1793 edition, Banneker published his now well-known correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, then the United States Secretary of State. In this letter, Banneker argued that the principles of The Declaration of Independence and The Bill of Rights contradicted the continued existence of slavery. He pointed to his own intellectual achievements, possible only because he was free, as evidence that his people were not “in reason much inferior,” as Jefferson had previously written.

Banneker sent his 1792 Almanac to Thomas Jefferson as proof that people of African descent had just as capable minds as any other. The letter and response were then printed in his 1793 Almanac, “Sir, pitiable it is to reflect that…in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others.” 

“We are a race of beings, who have long labored under the abuse and censure of the world; we have long been looked upon with an eye of contempt. However diversified in situation or color, we are all of the same family.”

Banneker’s accomplishments, brilliance, and advocacy inspired generations of future scientists, authors and naturalists. His life strongly refuted early white supremacist ideals that attempted to demean descendants of slaves. Banneker remained a strong voice in pursuit of abolition and endures as a reminder that when prejudice and bigotry are allowed to dominate society, human progress is stalled.

Meet Gladys West, the Hidden Figure of GPS

Collage of Gladys West with a navy blue and pink gradient

Born in rural Virginia in 1930, Gladys West was critical to the development of what we now know as GPS or Global Positioning Systems. She grew up in a community of sharecroppers and realized she would need to focus on education if she did not want a future on farms or factories.

From Valedictorian to Virginia State

Gladys graduated as valedictorian and received a scholarship to Virginia State College (now University), a historically black public university, where she decided to major in mathematics. She first worked as a teacher, as so many women at the time did, before she decided to return to Virginia State to get a Master’s in Mathematics.

Satellites and Supercomputers

In 1956 she began work at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia, which conducts the Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E) for ship and submarine systems. Her work focused on determining the exact location of satellites orbiting the earth. She programmed that information into the new supercomputers – high performance systems required for high speed computations, which, in the 1960s, could take up entire rooms! When she started at the Warfare Center, she was one of only two Black women and two Black men who worked there. (One of those men, Ira West, later became her husband.)

“Always doing things just right, to set an example for other people who were coming behind me, especially women. I strived hard to be tough and hang in there the best I could.”

Download this free Gladys West post from A Mighty Girl

When asked about how it felt to be one of so few African-Americans there, Mrs. West remembers: “I carried that load round, thinking that I had to be the best that I could be,” she says. “Always doing things just right, to set an example for other people who were coming behind me, especially women. I strived hard to be tough and hang in there the best I could.”

Laying the Foundation for Modern GPS

She learned a lot from trial and error. Her team would code the position of the Earth, accounting for variations in the planet’s shape caused by tides, gravity, and other forces. Mrs. West recalls the operators calling in her team to watch how the systems were running: “Nine times out of 10 they weren’t completely right so you had to analyse them and find out what was different to what you expected.” These models laid the foundation for GPS, now used for vehicle navigation, military missions, geo-tagging, and much more. 

Though she overcame many obstacles, as many Black women in STEM fields have, she never thought her work would affect the world in such significant ways, particularly as a role model for other women in these fields. 

“I think I did help,” she says, of her becoming a role model for other women. “We have made a lot of progress since when I came in, because now at least you can talk about things and be open a little more. Before you sort of whispered and looked at each other or something, but now the world is opening up a little bit and making it easier for women. But they still gotta fight.”

Changing the Face of Medicine: Jennifer Giroux

Over the last nine months, we have grown very accustomed to hearing from Dr. Anthony Fauci and other public health leaders who help us better understand COVID-19 and the threats it poses to our health and the health of our communities, nation, and the world. Many of these voices are those of epidemiologists, often referred to as Disease Detectives, who search for the cause of diseases, determine who is at risk, develop plans to stop or control the spread, and try to prevent it from happening in the future. 

Captain Jennifer Giroux, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, is a medical epidemiologist who focuses on preventing disease outbreaks among Indigenous populations in the Great Plains Regional Office of Indian Health Services, a division of the US Department of Human and Health Services. These regional offices provide healthcare to all tribal nations and communities in designated states.

Giroux moved frequently while growing up in South Dakota and Montana and never imagined she would become a doctor. In a fantastic online exhibition “Changing the Face of Medicine,” created by the National Library of Medicine, we learn that her inspiration to become a doctor emerged from traveling in developing countries where she realized her privilege as an American when compared to many women around the world. She was determined to take advantage of her opportunities and then work in Indigenous American communities where resources and services are often lacking, especially in medicine and public health. 

Early in her career, Captain Giroux recognized the need for collaboration among medical and public health professionals around health crisis responses as well as the need for culturally-relevant communication and education for Indigenous communities.  In other words, when professionals want to provide information or medical support to tribes, it is important to integrate relevant cultural references to create trust and a sense of safety. This is a reason many Indigenous people, like Captain Giroux, put their education and training to work in tribal communities, to ensure people will not suffer because of misunderstandings or prejudices.

Her current work in the Great Plains is part of a larger network of Tribal Epidemiology Centers that work together to reduce public health disparities and improve the health of Indigenous Americans across the country. Captain Giroux and her Tribal Epidemiology Center colleagues around the country have been working tenaciously to ensure tribal communities receive the necessary education, surveillance, prevention supplies, and information to stay safe during the pandemic.

Cherokee Rocket Scientist: Mary Golda Ross

Collage of Mary Golda Ross with colorful overlay

Image source: Transportation History

Mary Golda Ross (1908-2008) was a celebrated pioneer and is still a figurehead in the Cherokee Nation. From a young age, she loved math and science, and many attribute her academic and professional successes to the rich heritage of the Cherokee tribe, especially a belief in gender equality around education. After completing high school at age 16 in Park Hill, Oklahoma where she was born, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Northeastern State Teacher’s College. At that moment in history, fewer than 2% of women were completing such degrees.

Before spending her long career at Lockheed Martin, she taught math in public schools, worked as a statistician for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and an adviser to students at New Mexico boarding school. Though she eventually went to graduate school in mathematics, she famously spent her free time reading about and studying astronomy, growing a lifelong love of stars. 

When WWII broke out in 1942, she was hired by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to work on their new fighter Plane, the P-38 Lightning. She was later selected as one of the founding 40 employees to work on the top-secret Skunk Works Team. Still in operation today, Skunk Works tackle the critical and evolving needs of the military to combat threats from the air. Though other women worked across Lockheed, she was one of only two women and the only Native American on the Skunk Works team. 

Shh…Top Secret

Her fascination with and study of stars bolstered her transition, during the Cold War, from aviation to space technology. She made many significant contributions to the US space program. She helped develop operational requirements for the Agena B, which sent a secret spy satellite into orbit. This is one of many aspects of Ross’s work that was or still is classified. 

Could she ever have imagined contributing to the secret missions of the United States military when she was growing up in Park Hill, Oklahoma?

After retiring from Lockheed in the late 1970s, Ross dedicated the next thirty years advocating to increase and strengthen opportunities for American Indians. As such, she was especially thrilled to attend the celebratory procession at the 2004 opening of the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. As part of the largest known gathering of Native American communities in history, Ross donned a green Cherokee dress made by her niece. 

In a press release written for that occasion, Chad Smith, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, said  “The accomplishments of Mary Golda Ross epitomize the Cherokee spirit. This exceptional woman was and will continue to be a great example to each of us. Her ambition and successes exemplify the importance of education and are evidence of the doors that can be opened through higher learning.”