Scientist and inventor Dr. Valerie LaVerne Thomas has contributed a lifetime of technological inspiration to young women, particularly Black women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The Baltimore native was born on February 1, 1943, and we celebrate her accomplishments along with Black History Month.
Dr. Thomas is the retired associate chief of NASA’s Space Science Data Operations Office. She worked at NASA for 30 years, coming aboard not long after the first Appolo Command Module went into orbit.
Brown vs. Board of Education
Growing up in the early days of integration and civil rights was full of challenges, but she persevered, earning her degree in physics at a time when few other women did. She grew up in the historically Black, Cherry Hill section when the U.S. Supreme Court made its Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
She graduated from Morgan State University with honors in 1964, then joined NASA a year later as a mathematician and data analyst. Once established, Thomas managed the Landsat project, an image-processing system that enabled satellites to transmit images from space.
A Technological Inspiration to Young Women
In the mid-1970s, she invented the Illusion Transmitter, for which she received a patent in 1980.
The transmitter sends an image from one parabolic mirror to another, creating an artificial 3D rendering. It transmits 3D illusions of an object from satellites to earth. As of 2022, NASA still uses the technology. In addition, she helped develop processing software to convert scientific data captured by satellites into usable information.
In 1985, Thomas earned her Master’s in engineering administration from George Washington University, and in 2004 received her doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Delaware.
An Innovator from the Start
Her story is remarkable for the time in which she grew up. The resources to study technology weren’t always available, but she applied herself, reading about technology and experimenting with electronics. Around the age of eight, she got hold of a book titled The Boy’s First Book of Radio and Electronics, which launched a lifetime of technological inspiration.
Her career includes educational opportunities not previously available to women of color, and she has become a role model to Black women in the study of science and technology. It has been a lifelong habit to give back to education. She visits schools and encourages young women to pursue their dreams.
Dr. Thomas isn’t one of the pioneering African American women featured in the Hidden Figures film from 2016, but she could be. Over the years, she has reached out to young women to encourage higher education in science and technology. Today, she is still active with the SHADES OF BLUE organization, of which she is a chapter leader in the DC area.