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WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

Do you know of a great woman in engineering that should be recognized? Let us know! Submit a few paragraphs about that person and we'll add her to the blog. Please provide a citation for the material that you submit so that we can verify it. Please note - it has to be original material. We cannot publish copywritten material or bulk text taken from books or other sites (including Wikipedia).

Woman of the Week - Maria Gaetana Agnesi

Posted February 20, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

Woman of the Week - Maria Gaetana Agnesi

Maria Gaetana Agnesi was an Italian mathematician, philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian in the 1700s.

She was the first woman to write a mathematics handbook and the first woman appointed as a mathematics professor at a university.

She is also credited with writing the first book discussing both differential and integral calculus and was a member of the faculty at the University of Bologna, although she never served.

She was born in Milan, to a wealthy and literate family. Her father Pietro Agnesi, a University of Bologna mathematics professor, wanted his family to rise up in the nobility. In order to achieve his goal, he had married Maria’s mother Anna Fortunata Brivio in 1717. In 1732, her mother passed away. Agnesi took over management of the household. Her father remarried twice and had many more children. In total, she was one of 21 children.

She was recognized early on as a child prodigy; she could speak both Italian and French at five years of age. By her eleventh birthday, she had also learned Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German, and Latin, and was referred to as the "Seven-Tongued Orator.” She even educated her younger brothers. When she was nine years old, she composed and delivered an hour-long speech in Latin to some of the most distinguished intellectuals of the day. The subject was women's right to be educated.

Agnesi suffered a mysterious illness at the age of 12 that was attributed to her excessive studying. She was prescribed vigorous dancing and horseback riding. This treatment did not work; she began to experience extreme convulsions, after which she was encouraged to pursue the exercise in moderation. By the time she was fifteen, her father began to regularly gather in his house a circle of the most learned men in Bologna, before whom she read and maintained a series of theses on philosophy. Her father had published in 1738 as an account of her final performance, where she defended 190 theses. Though she was successful, she did not like these meetings, as she was very shy in nature.

By twenty, she began working on her most important work, Analytical Institutions, dealing with differential and integral calculus. When published in 1748, it caused a sensation in the academic world. It was one of the first and most complete works on finite and infinitesimal analysis. The book became a model of clarity. It was often used as an academic text.

She is best known from the curve called the "Witch of Agnesi.” It is a versed sine curve, originally studied by Fermat. It was called a versiera, a word derived from the Latin vertere, meaning 'to turn', but it was also an abbreviation for the Italian word avversiera, meaning 'the wife of the devil.’ When her text was translated into English the word versiera was confused with "witch,” and the curve came to be known as the witch of Agnesi.

She devoted the last four decades of her life to studying theology (especially patristics) and to charitable work and serving the poor. This extended to helping the sick by allowing them entrance into her home where she set up a hospital.


1 comments; last comment on 02/22/2017
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Woman of the Week – Joy Adamson

Posted February 13, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

While she’s not a scientist or engineer, her conservation work over the course of her life is something we can all appreciate. Joy Adamson is best known for her work with Elsa the Lioness, among many other lions and big cats.

In 1956, Joy's husband, George Adamson, in the course of his job as game warden of the Northern Frontier District in Kenya, shot and killed a lioness as the lioness charged him and another warden. George later realized the lioness was just protecting her cubs, which were found nearby in a rocky crevice. The couple decided to take the cubs home and care for them. However, they quickly realized what a large task this was. The two largest cubs, named "Big One" and "Lustica", were passed on to be cared for by a zoo, and the smallest, "Elsa", was raised by the couple.

After some time living together, the Adamsons decided to set Elsa free rather than send her to a zoo, and spent many months training her to hunt and survive on her own. Elsa became the first lioness successfully released back into the wild. She was the first lioness known released lion to have a litter of cubs after living part of her life in captivity. The couple followed Elsa and the cubs throughout the rest of their lives, but getting close enough only to photograph them.

In January 1961, Elsa died from disease resulting from a tick bite. Her three young cubs became a nuisance, killing the livestock of local farmers. The Adamsons, who feared the farmers might kill the cubs, were able to eventually capture them and transport them to neighboring Tanganyika Territory, where they were promised a home at Serengeti National Park. In The Story of Elsa, a compilation of the books about Elsa, she wrote: "My heart was with them wherever they were. But it was also with these two lions here in front of us; and as I watched this beautiful pair, I realized how all the characteristics of our cubs were inherent in them. Indeed, in every lion I saw during our searches I recognized the intrinsic nature of Elsa, Jespah, Gopa and Little Elsa, the spirit of all the magnificent lions in Africa.”


During her lifetime, Joy created more than 500 paintings and line drawings. Her work included the people of Kenya, botanical and animal paintings, and studies of Elsa. Joy developed a very close relationship with Elsa, she in fact noted in her book Born Free, which chronicled Elsa’s life, “that the lion became almost like my child. Because I had no children, I have spent all my emotion on her and my other animals. But I cannot make them my own."

Born Free (1960) became an international best seller, and its success put the spotlight on the need to preserve African wildlife. She wrote two more books about Elsa and her cubs, Living Free (1961) and Forever Free (1962). In addition to her writing, Adamson established her own conservation group, the Elsa Wild Animal Appeal.

While Elsa was alive, Joy and George Adamson needed each other to educate her, but after she died and her cubs were taken in by the zoo, their interests went in separate directions, as did their lives. The couple never officially divorced, they lived separate lives after raising their lions. George wanted to continue work with lions, while Joy wanted to work with cheetahs. Every year, they got together for Christmas, and they remained on good terms.

Joy’s life ended tragically, in fact, so did her husband’s. On January 3rd 1980, in Shaba National Reserve in Kenya, Joy Adamson's body was discovered by her assistant, Peter Morson. He mistakenly assumed she had been killed by a lion, and this was what was initially reported by the media. A police investigation found Adamson's wounds were too sharp and bloodless to have been caused by an animal, and concluded she had been murdered. Paul Nakware Ekai, a discharged laborer formerly employed by Adamson, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to indefinite imprisonment. He escaped capital punishment because the judge ruled he might have been a minor when the crime was committed.

She was several weeks shy of her 70th birthday when she was killed.

George Adamson was murdered by Somali bandits nine years later in 1989, near his camp in Kora National Park, while rushing to the aid of a tourist who was being attacked by poachers. He is credited with saving the tourist's life. He was 83.


1 comments; last comment on 02/15/2017
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Woman of the Week – Christine Darden: a hidden Hidden Figure

Posted February 06, 2017 9:07 AM by IronWoman

Most of what you want in life will be because of your discipline. Discipline is perhaps more important than ability.”

—Dr. Christine M. Darden

20th Century Fox’s Hidden Figures has been one of the most anticipated films of 2017. Filled with intellect and vigor, the piece centers around three women – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson – who are called to action by NASA in the 1960s. According to a link on AIP: Center for History of Physics’ website, “[u]pon WWII, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802,…bann[ing] racial discrimination in government defense industries. A shortage of male workers due to the war allowed unprecedented numbers of women and African Americans to enter industries previously restricted to them. It was in this context that the first African American women computers were hired at Langley to compensate for a shortage of male mathematicians. Though the industries were opening,…segregation continued and Black computers were called the ‘West Computers’ or ‘West Area Computers’…they were restricted to the West Area of the Langley facility. With their restrooms, cafeteria, and routes in the building completely separate, many white computers at Langley were actually unaware of the presence of their Black counterparts.”

Despite blatant isolation, opposition, and discrimination, the West Computer employees set out to be more than unsung heroes. While its motion picture adaptation focuses solely on Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson, Margot Lee Shetterly’s original novel draws attention to four women. The name of the mystery mathematician not portrayed in the film is Christine Darden.

Christine Mann Darden was born September 10, 1942 in Monroe, NC. Having attended Allen High School, Hampton Institute, Virginia State University, and George Washington University, Darden briefly ceased her studies after earning her doctorate in Mechanical Engineering (specializing in Fluid Mechanics). She worked as a high school and college math teacher before being offered a position in 1967 as a female mathematician for data processing. While employed at the station – then known as Langley Research Center –, Christine received a certificate of advanced study in Management from Simmons Graduate School of Management in Boston, MA.

After eight years of employment at the center, Darden decided that it was time for a change. She took it upon herself to approach her supervisor about gender discrimination in the sought-after engineering sector. Because of her poise and assertiveness, Darden was offered a job as aerospace engineer – a rare role for black women to earn in the mid- to late twentieth century. The main focus for her and the team was sonic boom minimization in levels caused by complex supersonic spacecraft configurations. It wasn’t long – four years, in fact – before Christine was asked to become technical leader of the research program at hand and oversee her team’s success.

In her forty year career at NASA, Darden also acted as technical consultant on numerous projects while authoring over fifty publications in fields such as sonic boom prediction, sonic boom minimization, high lift wing design in supersonic flow, and flap design. For her achievements, according to a biography on The History Makers, “Darden received the Dr. A. T. Weathers Technical Achievement Award from the National Technical Association in 1985…[and] the Senior Executive Career Development Fellowship from Simmons College in 1994. NASA recognized Darden with the Certificate of Outstanding Performance ten times between 1973 and 2003. Not only has Darden received the NASA medals for equal opportunity and for achievement in leading the sonic boom program, she is also the recipient of the 1987 Candace Award for Science and Technology from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and the 1988 Black Engineer of the Year Award from the publishers of U.S. Black Engineer & Technology magazine.”

Christine Darden is quoted on Black History Pages as saying: "[y]ou have to be ready when opportunity comes…[a]nd you have to be persistent." Here’s to a woman who deserves as much recognition of her accomplishments as the effort she has put in, helping to enhance and change NASA for the better. Thank you for living true to your words, Christine Darden.


10 comments; last comment on 02/22/2017
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Woman of the Week – Christa McAuliffe

Posted January 30, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

Sharon Christa McAuliffe was an American teacher and was one of the seven crew members killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.

She received her bachelor's degree in education and history from Framingham State College in 1970, and also a master's in education supervision and administration from Bowie State University in 1978. She took a teaching position as a social studies teacher at Concord High School in New Hampshire after that.

In 1985, she was selected from more than 11,000 applicants to participate in the NASA Teacher in Space Project and was scheduled to become the first teacher in space.

As a member of mission STS-51-L, she was planning to conduct experiments and teach lessons from the Challenger.

She was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, and took interest in space exploration when she was young. She took notice of Project Mercury and the Apollo moon landing program. The day after John Glenn orbited the Earth in Friendship 7, she told a friend in high school, "Do you realize that someday people will be going to the Moon? Maybe even taking a bus, and I want to do that,” according to a biography written about her.

She wrote years later on her NASA application form: "I watched the Space Age being born, and I would like to participate."

In 1970, she started as an American history teacher at Benjamin Foulois Junior High School in Morningside, Maryland. Then from 1971 to 1978, she taught history and civics at Thomas Johnson Middle School in Lanham, Maryland. In addition to teaching, she completed a Master of Arts in education supervision and administration from Bowie State University in Maryland.

In 1978, she moved to Concord, New Hampshire, when her husband accepted a job as an assistant to the New Hampshire Attorney General. She taught American history and English to middle schoolers when they first moved there, before taking her job at Concord High.

She was a social studies teacher, and taught several courses including American history, law, and economics, in addition to a self-designed course: "The American Woman.” She focused on taking field trips and bringing in knowledgeable guest speakers, as well as classroom learning.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan announced the Teacher in Space Project, and McAuliffe learned about NASA's efforts to find the first civilian, an educator, to fly into space. NASA wanted to find an "ordinary person," a gifted teacher who could communicate with students while in orbit. NASA officials thought sending a civilian into space would cause public interest in space exploration to increase. President Reagan also thought it was crucial to remind Americans about the importance of educators.

She applied to the contest and was chosen as a finalist out of 11,000 applicants. After an interview process with NASA officials among the 10 finalists, she was chosen. An announcement about her journey was made by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.

She took a leave of absence from teaching and got to work on what she’d teach in space. She had planned to conduct included basic science experiments in the fields of chromatography, hydroponics, magnetism, and Newton's laws. She also planned on showing a tour of the spacecraft, which would have been broadcast to millions of schoolchildren on television.

On January 28, 1986 she boarded the Challenger with the rest of the crew. Just 73 seconds into flight the shuttle fell apart, resulting in the deaths of everyone on board. Extensive research was done after to determine the cause of the accident. Later, it was determined that the accident was due to a failure of rubber O-rings made by Morton-Thiokol that provided a pressure seal in the aft field joint of the shuttle's right Solid Rocket Booster. The failure was determined to be a design flaw.

After her death, schools and scholarships were named in her honor, and in 2004 she was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

McAuliffe’s life was one that held much promise but was tragically cut short. Her legacy is strong, like all the others aboard the Challenger. To put it simply, when asked about her impending journey to space on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, she said:

"If you're offered a seat on a rocket ship, don't ask what seat. Just get on."


24 comments; last comment on 02/01/2017
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Woman of the Week – Peggy Whitson

Posted January 23, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

Peggy Whitson has spent more than a year of her life in space. She is an American biochemistry researcher, NASA astronaut and former Chief astronaut.

Her first space mission was in 2002, an extended stay aboard the International Space Station as a member of Expedition 5. Her next mission launched on October 10, 2007, as the first female commander of the ISS with Expedition 16.

Whitson is NASA's most experienced female astronaut, with just over 376 days in space. This also places her twenty-ninth among all space flyers. She is in space currently as part of the crew of Expedition 50.

The flight of Space Shuttle mission STS-120, commanded by astronaut Pam Melroy, was the first time that two female mission commanders have been in orbit at the same time.

Whitson was born in Mount Ayr, Iowa, and grew up on a farm in a small town nearby. Whitson graduated from Mount Ayr Community High School in 1978 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and chemistry from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1981. She then went on to earn her doctorate degree in biochemistry from Rice University in 1985, and following completion of her graduate work, continued at Rice as a Robert A Welch Post-doctoral Fellow until October 1986.

She had several jobs after college, and before going into space. She worked as a Research Biochemist in the Biomedical Operations and Research Branch at NASA-JSC from 1989 to 1993. From 1991 through 1992, she was the Payload Element Developer for Bone Cell Research Experiment (E10) aboard SL-J (STS-47), and was a member of the US-USSR Joint Working Group in Space Medicine and Biology. In 1992, she was named the Project Scientist of the Shuttle-Mir Program. From 1993 through 1996, Whitson held the additional responsibilities of the Deputy Division Chief of the Medical Sciences Division at NASA-JSC. From 1995–1996, she served as Co-Chair of the U.S.-Russian Mission Science Working Group.

From March 2005 to November 2005, she served as Chief of the Station Operations Branch, Astronaut Office. Whitson trained as the backup ISS commander for Expedition 14 from November 2005 to September 2006.

She completed two six-month tours of duty aboard the International Space Station, the second as the station commander for Expedition 16 in April 2008. This was her second longest trip to space. From October 2009 to July 2012, Whitson served as Chief of the Astronaut Corps and was responsible for the mission preparation activities and on-orbit support of all International Space Station crews and their support personnel. Whitson was the first female, nonmilitary Chief of the Astronaut Office as well.

Her three space expeditions, Expedition 5, Expedition 16, and Expedition 50/51, are possibly what she is most known for. The Expedition 5 crew launched on June 5, 2002, aboard STS-111 and docked with the International Space Station on June 7, 2002. During her six-month there, Whitson installed the Mobile Base System, the S1 truss segment, and the P1 truss segment using the space station remote manipulator system; performed a 4-hour and 25 minute spacewalk in a Russian Orlan space suit to install micrometeoroid shielding on the Zvezda Service Module; and activated and checked out the Microgravity Sciences Glovebox, a facility class payload rack.

On Expedition 16, which launched October 10, 2007, she spent 191 days, 19 hours and 8 minutes in space on this mission.

Whitson is currently in space on the Expedition 50/51, which launched on November 17, 2016. When this expedition launched, she became the oldest woman in space at age 56. You can follow her adventures in space on her Twitter page, which is a fun look at someone’s life in orbit. Her page is here.


4 comments; last comment on 01/24/2017
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