Dr Valerie Thomas – Data Analyst and Mathematician

Thanks to the amazing grant of £1000 given to us by the Royal Astronomical Society, we’ve been able to hire writers for our blog posts on scientists of colour. This incredible article was written by the wonderful Cameron Perumal! Follow her on Twitter @oldytimeycam. If you would like to apply to be a Science Writer for POC2 , you can find instructions on how to apply here.

Dr Valerie Thomas with a stack of early Landsat Computer Compatible Tapes in 1979 [9]

Who is Dr Valerie Thomas?

Valerie L. Thomas, born 8 February 1943 (aged 78) in Maryland, is a data analyst and mathematician, most known for her work on NASA’s Landsat Programme (the longest-running project to acquire satellite images from Earth remotely – more on that later) and her illusion transmitter invention. She majored in Physics at Morgan State University (one of two women to do so at the time). [1][2]

Education:

B.S in Physics (Morgan State University)

M.S in Engineering Administration (George Washington University)

PhD in Engineering (honorary degree from Monmouth University)

Ed.D in Educational Leadership (University of Delaware). [3]

Early Life

Dr Thomas was interested in science and technology at a very young age, inspired at the age of eight by “The Boy’s First Book on Electronics”. Her parents were not very supportive of her interest, despite her father enjoying developing photos and tinkering with radios and TVs (he used to open up television sets), while Dr Thomas watched, fascinated by how the mechanical parts made an image appear on the screen. School was also not a conducive space for the young Dr Thomas, who attended an all-girls’ school with limited options in science and mathematics courses (which was compounded by the fact that Maryland prioritised the education of white children over Black children). In 1961, she graduated high school, and enrolled in Morgan State University, as only one of two women majoring in Physics (she almost doubled-majored in Mathematics), at a time when racial segregation was still in effect, and when women still were not afforded equal opportunities in access to education. [1][4][5][9][10][15]

Valerie Thomas’ and NASA – The Landsat Programme and LACIE

In 1964, after excelling in her maths and science courses at university, Dr Thomas entered NASA as a data analyst, where she was responsible for developing real-time computer data for supporting satellite control centres. This work led to the creation of the Landsat programme in 1970, where she worked on Landsat image-processing data systems, despite never seeing a computer before (except in science fiction movies). She used the opportunities available to her at NASA to learn as much as possible about computers (and computing), since her job as a data analyst relied heavily on this knowledge. The Landsat programme is the longest-running project to acquire satellite images from Earth remotely; in other words, it involves the capturing images of Earth’s surface from satellites orbiting Earth, to see how Earth’s landscape changes over time. Dr Valerie was involved in the processing of these images, which allows diverse, valuable data to be captured. Among the many uses of Landsat data, it has played a role in predicting crop yields; learning about and understanding coral reefs, tropical deforestation, Antarctica’s glaciers; mapping fault lines and fracture zones; creating tectonic activity maps and finding unmapped volcanic fields; and in improving remote sensing and Earth-based astronomy. [4][5][8][9][10][12][13]

While Dr Thomas was based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, she managed the development of Landsat’s early image processing software, quickly becoming renowned for her work on the Computer Compatible Tapes (CCTs) that stored Landsat images. She also taught herself FORTRAN (a programming language, that allows the user to write simple programs that could easily and quickly read the tapes), since she was used to the more time-consuming assembly language computer programmes. Dr Thomas later published a document on how to interpret the digital data acquired through Landsat, as previously she was the only one who was able to match the digital data from the tapes to the visual images on the screen. Her expertise led to her becoming one of the specialists on the LACIE (Large Area Crop Inventory Experiment) project, which demonstrated, for the first time, that global crop monitoring through satellite imagery (from the Landsat Programme) was possible. [9]

Dr Thomas became the head of the LACIE project, based at the Marshall Space Flight Centre, after the original task manager left, adding to her role as the developer of the image processing systems used. The LACIE project had a production rate of 100 test sites per day (a drastic increase from the preliminary 10 test sites per day), and was a multi-agency project, involving NASA, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the US Department of Agriculture, to predict global crop yields. Dr Thomas was also part of the international Landsat Ground Station Operators Working Group. Being the head of the LACIE project was Dr Thomas’ largest, most impactful role in the Landsat Programme. [4][8][9][10]

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Author’s Note: Dr Valerie Thomas and the Illusion Transmitter

In 1980, Dr Thomas acquired the patent for the illusion transmitter, crediting her as the inventor. She was inspired by an illusion of a lit-up lightbulb that was out of its socket at a 1976 exhibition and decided to see if she could apply concave mirrors and lights to further research at NASA.

The Illusion Transmitter, a precursor to modern 3D technology, simulates 3D, real-time observation of an object by transmitting an optical illusion of a 3D-image between concave mirrors, so that the end image looks real. This technology is still used at NASA, as well as in medicine (in surgical technology), and television and video screens. [1][2][4][7]


The Illusion Transmitter Illustration [16]

Importantly, patents at the time were difficult for women, let alone Black women to obtain, with Black inventors facing substantial barriers in the American patent system. From 1970 to 2006, only six in one million Black Americans received a patent, and fewer Black Americans apply for patents compared to white Americans, demonstrating significant gaps in the system and access to the system itself, due to systemic racism. This makes Dr Thomas’ work and achievements all the more meaningful, representing a small step towards dismantling the barriers imposed by the patent system (and science as a whole). [14]

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Dr Valerie Thomas – Later Work, Outreach and Achievements:

Dr Thomas was later appointed as the Assistant Programme Manager for Landsat/Nimbus at the NASA Headquarters, followed by being the Operations Manager for Landsat-7’s Thematic Mapper sensor. She then joined NASA’s Space Science Data Centre (NSSDC), where she was the NSSDC Computer Facility Manager, working on merging two independent computer systems, and updating them. Dr Thomas served as the Space Physics Analysis Network (SPAN) Project Manager, working on developing computer programmes to research Halley’s Comet, ozone holes, and supernovae. SPAN was NASA’s first wide-area network (WAN), connecting scientists from around the world, and was instrumental in the development of the internet as we know it today. [1][2][3][8][9][10]

In 1990, she led the creation of the Minority University’s Space Interdisciplinary Network (MU-SPIN), which provided minority institutions opportunities to partake in NASA-related research. In her final years at NASA, Dr Thomas wrote about career opportunities for women and Black Americans in the US, to increase access to and awareness of opportunities to those historically excluded from these (scientific) spaces. She was a youth mentor through the National Technical Association, Science Mathematics Aerospace Research and Technology Inc and the Shades of Blue DMV (District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia), while also working with Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) and the National Technical Association (NTA), to encourage young women to pursue careers in science and technology. She spoke at various schools and universities, as well as to adult groups, inspiring people of all ages, while also volunteering as a science fair judge. [1][2][8][10]

Dr Thomas has received a number of awards recognising her work and impact on the scientific community, including the Goddard Space Flight Centre Award of Merit and the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal. [1][10]

Where is Valerie Thomas now?

Dr Thomas has spoken about the difficulties of being a Black woman at NASA, and has said despite the obstacles she faced, she was never afraid of taking on challenges while unabashedly excelling in her work, working her way up to Associate Chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office at NASA, and retiring in 1995. [5][8][10]

After retiring, Dr Valerie Thomas served as an associate at the UMBC Centre for Multicore Hybrid Productivity Research. Currently, Dr Thomas works as a substitute teacher at DuBois High School, developing young people’s interest in science, and helping inspire students under her mentorship. [2][5]

Valerie Thomas in 2018 [9]

Dr Valerie Thomas has inspired generations since her work on the Landsat Programme, through her work, her outreach and her mentorship. She is a pioneer in computer data systems and image processing, a field (like so many other science-related fields) that is still dominated by cis white men, and paved a path for other Black women and people of colour to continue the work she started through creating opportunities through research and education. Her research and work on the Landsat Programme (and LACIE), as well as SPAN, and her Illusion Transmitter are still applicable to modern technology and science, which speaks to her impact and continued influence in science.

References:

[1]💻 Lemmelson-MIT Profile on Valerie Thomas: https://lemelson.mit.edu/resources/valerie-thomas

[2]💻 Valerie Thomas Profile: https://blackamericaweb.com/2014/10/27/little-known-black-history-fact-valerie-thomas/

[3]💻 Galaxy City Profile on Dr Valerie Thomas https://www.galaxycity.us/team-member/dr-valerie-l-thomas/

[4]💻 Fuel Cycle Article on Valerie Thomas: https://fuelcycle.com/blog/amplify-valerie-thomas/

[5]📹 Interview with Valerie Thomas : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ipiireemmig

[6]📹 Valerie Thomas – Career Overview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNOkBZ_fV5c

[7]💻 Valerie Thomas – Inventor of the Illusion Transmitter: https://www.beyondcurie.com/valerie-thomas

[8]💻 NASA Announcement of Valerie Thomas’ Retirement: https://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nssdc_news/sept95/04_j_green_0995.html

[9]💻 NASA Landsat Interview with Dr Valerie Thomas:  https://landsat.gsfc.nasa.gov/article/face-behind-landsat-images-meet-dr-valerie-l-thomas

[10]💻 Oregon State Blog Post: https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/robinlindeenblakeley/?page_id=76

[11]🎧 Podcast Episode on Valerie Thomas: https://open.spotify.com/episode/26y9xLjGGSvyWAOBnMPHMz?si=fbgvNN11TeSKqvzciUD70g

[12]💻 About the Landsat Programme: https://landsat.gsfc.nasa.gov/about

[13]💻 Science of the Landsat Programme: https://landsat.gsfc.nasa.gov/about/science

[14]💻 The Patent System and Black Inventors: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/intellectual_property_law/publications/landslide/2018-19/march-april/colorblind-patent-system-black-inventors/

[15]💻 Civil Rights in Maryland: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_Americans_in_Maryland#:~:text=Laws%20criminalizing%20marriage%20and%20sex,the%20segregation%20in%20the%20state.

[16]💻 Illusion Transmitter Patent: https://patents.google.com/patent/US4229761A/en

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