Native Knowledge and Next Steps in Science: Despite barriers, Native American science is crucial to greater understanding

November has been recognized as Native American Heritage Month since 1990, but through rich and unique iterations of the scientific method, sacred knowledge-sharing, and much more, Native scientists have been advancing human understanding of how our world works for centuries prior.

More Alike Than Different

Linda Black Elk, a Science Educator and Ethnobotanist at Sitting Bull Tribal College in Fort Yates, ND, beautifully summarizes the guiding principles of Native science in her article “Native Science: Understanding and Respecting Other Ways of Thinking”.

“Many researchers are reluctant to consider the contributions of Native science because they do not understand the methodology behind it,” she writes. “However, Native science has at its foundation the very same scientific method that we, as researchers trained in the Western world, all hold so near and dear.”

Both Native and academic scientific methods begin with observation. Observing the natural world is central to Indigenous peoples’ existing in and gaining an understanding of it. While much early literature suggested that Native Americans learned everything by trial and error, Black Elk explains that it was more likely long-term observation and analysis that would guide a community’s decisions. 

For example, while historians may have once guessed that Native Americans tested whether a berry was edible by trial and error, forcing individuals to eat it and see what happens, Black Elk suggests that they instead employed observation (Have other people eaten this berry? What happens to animals who eat this berry?), research (Who else knows about this berry? What can they share?), and experimentation (How do I feel when I touch this berry?) – steps not dissimilar from the more modern scientific method today’s scientists are familiar with.

Embedded in the Native scientific method are research-gathering techniques that, while foreign to some, are no less meaningful to those who employ them. Dreams and visions, for instance, are effective tools to receive knowledge in indigenous groups all over the world. Even Western science supports the idea that human minds can operate and process things differently when asleep or in ceremony. Many of the ideas gathered by Native science are skillfully organized not in written formal reports or studies, but rather through stories, songs, and ceremonies shared over time.

Photo by the Art Institute of Chicago.
Gift of the family of Rene d’Harnoncourt in memory of Malcolm Collier and Leslie Denman.

Black Elk explores another key difference between Western science and Indigenous learning – the latter is driven by a holistic, participatory involvement in the natural world. In Native science, there is no such thing as objectivity – in fact, Indigenous scientists see themselves as active participants rather than passive observers in what’s happening around them.

A Closed Lab

Despite this powerful perspective on science and our role within understanding it, Native Americans were historically kept from Western scientific circles. Poor infrastructure, high unemployment levels, prejudice, and of course the impacts of decades of horrifying, assimilationist oppression prevented Native Americans from entering the scientific community of years past.

Today, Native scientists often face the same social, governmental, and economic barriers, as well as an internal mistrust of governmental and educational institutions, poor health (both of individual Indigenous persons and their larger community), and conflict between and within Native groups. These reasons, paired with the inherent differences in approach between Western scientific education – in which educators often suggest there is only one prescribed, correct scientific method – and Native science – in which science is a circular, holistic way to understand and exist with the world around us – can create even more struggles.

“Native science strives for holism in theory and in practice, so it is almost impossible to discuss botany without also discussing zoology, soil science, or climate science,” writes Black Elk. “Ecological fields of study are closely related, and problems are solved with a consideration of the big picture.”

Native Scientists at Work

Perhaps this is why Native scientists have established themselves in a diverse number of crucial fields. Susan La Flesche Picotte, for example, born on the Omaha reservation in 1865, went on to become the first Native American woman to receive a medical degree and later opened the first non-government funded reservation hospital in Walthill, NE. 

Born in 1932, Fred Begay, also known as Clever Fox, was the first Navajo to earn a Ph.D. in Physics. Until his death in 2013, Begay maintained that his Navajo culture equipped him with the abstract thinking skills he relied on throughout his career, which included research on thermonuclear fusion as a potential clean, unlimited source of energy. 

Aaron Yazzie is a mechanical engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, where he designs systems for robotic research missions in space. Born on the Navajo Reservation in Tuba City, AZ, Yazzie has been awarded for promoting inclusion in and excitement for science and education among Indigenous communities. 

Picotte, Begay, and Yazzie are just a few of the countless scientists from Native communities that have carved a path for future STEM professionals. Today, organizations like the American Indian Science and Engineering Society are fighting for Native people to be capable, successful, respected members of the science community. Scholarships like the American Indian College Fund have helped break down economic barriers by providing more than 153,890 scholarships to Native American students since 1989.

From Now On

In 2017, we saw firsthand the implications of ignoring Native scientists and their understanding of our world. The Lakota people of South Dakota fought vehemently against construction of the Keystone Pipeline, citing generational knowledge that a black snake would destroy the land as evidence to support rerouting the pipeline. Later that year, it leaked multiple times, with one instance resulting in 210,000 gallons flowing out into the surrounding environment.

It is our hope and responsibility as scientists to respect the learnings of Native American people while seeking to understand the skill with which they were obtained. Native science, in both the past and present, is more than a lens with which to view the world. It is a framework for knowledge, a wealth of intelligence, and a path forward.

Meet John Cornforth: A Master of Chemical Synthesis

John Cornforth

©The Godfrey Argent Studio

By Sarah Strassler

In order to develop new drugs and chemicals, we need to be able to design a molecule on paper and then bring it to life! This involves trying different recipes until the product is just right. However, unlike making a cake, the molecules can’t be seen or tasted. Scientists rely on creative methods to understand what is going on in their flasks and to detect the final product. The research of Sir John Cornforth was pivotal in helping us understand the three-dimensional arrangements, or stereochemistry, of atoms in a molecule which helps us predict how they’ll interact to make new ones. This allowed Cornforth to develop recipes for many important molecules, including cholesterol and penicillin!

Ostosclerosis left Cornforth fully deaf by the age of 16.

John Cornforth was born on September 17th, 1917 in Sydney, Australia. When Cornforth was 10 years old, he started to show the first signs of otosclerosis which is a condition where the bones in the middle ear become deformed. These bones eventually stop transmitting sound and the condition leads to deafness. As his hearing deteriorated, Cornforth became drawn to science and “the beauties of crystals and distilled liquids, the colours of dyes, and smells both good and bad.” This motivated him to develop his own home laboratory in his mother’s laundry room.

By the time Cornforth began college at the University of Sydney, he was completely deaf. Cornforth relied on primary literature to learn the material for his classes and even taught himself German to be able to understand a broader range of articles. He went on to earn his doctorate from Oxford University in 1941 where he was awarded one of only two scholarships. The other scholarship was awarded to Rita Harradance whom Cornforth later married, and who became his “ears” during scientific meetings.

Research on stereochemistry and enzyme synthesis earned Cornforth the Nobel Prize.

Cornforth had a knack for synthesizing difficult chemicals. As a graduate student, Cornforth became the first scientist to synthesize cholesterol, an important molecule needed to make hormones. When World War II broke out, Cornforth developed a method to make a vital precursor for the “miracle drug” penicillin.

Because Australian universities required that all scientists lecture, Cornforth remained in England. He worked as a staff member at the National Institute for Medical Research, and then later as a co-director of the Milstead Laboratory of Chemical Enzymology. Cornforth continued to pursue research which furthered our understanding of how chemicals interact and new synthesis techniques. This work earned him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1975 alongside corecipient Vladimir Prelog. Cornforth was knighted in 1977 and he received countless other awards throughout his lifetime from organizations such as the Royal Society and the American Chemical Society.

Cornforth published articles to share knowledge in an accessible way.

Throughout his career, Cornforth published hundreds of articles to share his findings with the scientific community. His research paved the way for the development of modern cholesterol-lowering drugs and laid the foundation for synthesis of countless chemicals utilized today.

 

Up Close and Personal with The Amphibian Foundation 

Crystal Mandica By Lucy Cronin-Golomb

Amphibians are secretive little critters. They like to hide in the comfortable corners of woodlands, marshes, and swamps. When you go on a walk in the woods, you might find an amphibian burrowed under a log or tucked into the corner of a stream. We don’t see amphibians all the time, so sometimes it is easy to forget they are there. Yet their presence is insurmountably important. Amphibians are crucial for the control of bug populations. They also provide a valuable food resource for creatures such as birds and snakes. Without amphibians, certain ecosystems become vulnerable to collapse.

I sat down with Crystal Mandica, the Director of Education at the Amphibian Foundation, to learn more about these enigmatic creatures and her work connecting the public to them. “It’s so important,” Crystal says, “To teach everyone, from the really little kids all the way to adults, about amphibians.” Especially since, as Crystal explained, more and more species of amphibians are going extinct.  In Georgia alone, there are 7,000 species of amphibians. 2,500 of those are on the edge of extinction or are already extinct. They are losing their habitats to clearcutting of forests and suffering from nasty, suffocating diseases, like the creepy chytrid fungus. Education is critical because a lot of people don’t realize how many amphibian species are in danger. It is important to learn how we can help before it is too late.

Crystal Mandica holding a plastic bag of natural water that has an amphibian inside.

Amphibian Conservation and Education

Have you ever seen a frosted flatwoods salamander? This little creature has lost 98% of its natural habitat. At the Amphibian Foundation, there are special, safe areas where the salamanders have plenty of room to live and grow. Once the adults lay eggs, those eggs are brought back to the wild to help repopulate the species. It can be tricky to successfully breed amphibians in captivity. But the Amphibian Foundation has found success- early this year, they announced they had successfully bred the frosted flatwoods salamander in captivity for the first time! There are eight other at-risk species at the Amphibian Foundation to learn all about too.

Crystal leads the education charge at the Amphibian Foundation. They host both informal events and formal educational opportunities throughout the year to tell the public stories of the frosted flatwoods salamander and friends and the work the Foundation is doing to preserve them.Check out one of the many classes and camps for people of all ages to learn about and appreciate amphibians.

For Crystal, reaching people of all ages is especially important. “It is good to encourage even the really little kids to learn about these creatures as early as they can, so they know they exist and can appreciate them!” She offers Critter Cafes, where small children can see and touch frogs and salamanders, and, for older kids, there are Critter Camps during the summer, where they can explore various woodland areas, flipping logs and scouting out streams. The best part of the camps, Crystal says, is “Snake Day,” which comes at the end. While some campers are initially nervous about Snake Day, after a week of learning about amphibians, campers are excited and ready to meet their slithery friends.

For adult learners, they offer the Master Herpetologist program. This program is one of the foundation’s most popular, reaching 250 students per semester. A “Junior Herpetologist” program is also in the works. If you are looking for a unique way to celebrate your birthday, The Amphibian Foundation has Critter Birthday Parties where you can have amphibian guests mingle among your friends. Crystal hopes to add more and more classes, events, and camps in the next couple of years.

Amphibians like to hide and tend to shy away from the spotlight. But now more than ever, it is important that we are aware of them. They need our help to survive. At the Amphibian Foundation, Crystal is doing the crucial work of shining the light on amphibians, through both education and conservation.  Learn more about ways you can help contribute to the education and conservation efforts of the Amphibian Foundation!

Meet Lonnie Johnson, Inventor of the Super Soaker

Lonnie Johnson

Longtime Atlanta local Lonnie Johnson is an engineer, inventor and entrepreneur. His education and experience enable him to engineer new products, some that have provided hours of fun for kids and others with the potential to transform the way people around the world generate power.

Born in 1949 in Mobile, Alabama, Johnson followed his curiosity from a young age. He has imagined and invented new gadgets and experiences from go-carts and robots to space vehicle systems and rechargeable batteries.  In an 2018 interview, Johnson explains his longtime fascination with how things work: “For me, it’s almost magical being able to come up with ideas and then have them materialize.” His first accolade came at a science fair in 1968 sponsored by the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS). Johnson was the only Black student in the competition and “Linex,” a compressed-air-powered robot made of junkyard scraps, won him first prize.

He later earned bachelors and masters degrees in engineering before joining the United States Air Force and later NASA. As he applied his curiosity to government projects, Johnson continued to pursue his own inventions. While exploring how to build an environmentally friendly heat pump, Johnson attached some nozzles to his bathroom sink and when he opened the nozzles a very powerful stream of water blasted into the bathtub When he opened the nozzles a powerful stream of water shot straight into the bathtub. That late night experimentation became the Super Soaker, the number one selling toy in 1991.

Since then, Johnson has created more than 100 inventions and is now dedicated to developing new energy technology as well as inspiring new generations of curious kids in Georgia and Alabama and across the United States. Read more about Lonnie Johnson

Untold Science Story: Etta Zuber Falconer

Etta Zuber Falconer

Etta Falconer committed herself to being a lifelong learner at an early age, and she dedicated her life to increasing the number of African-Americans in mathematics and in mathematics-related careers as an admired teacher and mentor. Born in 1933 in Tupelo, Mississippi, Etta was one of two daughters in a family that placed a high value on education. She attended the segregated high school in Tupelo before going to Nashville to attend the historically black Fisk University. There she studied with Evelyn Boyd Granville who was one of the first two African-American women to be awarded a PhD. After graduating, she went to study mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she was one of only a few African-American students. After receiving her masters in 1953, she returned to Mississippi and began her long career as a teacher. In 1965 she moved to Atlanta and took a position at her mother’s alma mater, Spelman College, where she worked until her death in 2002. While working as a part-time instructor, she also earned a doctorate at Emory University where she became the 11th African-American woman ever to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics.

Her research was very highly regarded but, as her son Walter told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “(she) gave up a tremendous career in research because her passion was to teach African-American women and to give them an opportunity for careers in the sciences.” She was instrumental in establishing and growing the math and sciences programs at Spelman College. Before she died in 2002, she received the AAAS Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement for helping “students of science and mathematics overcome barriers of race and gender to make the transition from high school to college and beyond.”

 

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

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.”