Opportunities Matter

Valerie Thomas was born in Maryland in 1943. When she went to school, schools were being integrated. Without the landmark Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court decision, it’s unlikely that Valerie would have had the opportunity to utilize fully the talent she had for math and science.

She graduated from high school in 1961. She then attended Morgan State University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). She was one of two women to major in physics. She graduated in 1964 (3 years) with highest honors.

She began her career at NASA helping provide systems to support satellite control centers. Without these systems, NASA could not maneuver satellites as they went into orbit. Later, she oversaw the Landsat effort which allowed scientists to gather data from space about conditions on Earth.

Just 10 years into her career at NASA, she managed a team of 50 on one of the first projects to use space technology to benefit society worldwide. This first effort was used to predict wheat yields worldwide.

For all of her accomplishments, Valerie is perhaps best known for the invention of the illusion transmitter. This device allowed NASA to deliver images from space. It also became important for its use in TV and video games and more recently surgeries.

Later she supported an effort that allowed NASA to connect its 2,700 research stations worldwide. This effort allowed real-time collaboration of research scientists, much like how the internet functions today.

Throughout her career, Valerie has mentored young people who have an interest in STEM careers. She has become a role model, especially for young African Americans.

Just imagine what our nation would have lost if Valerie Thomas had been unable to realize the talent she had. A landmark Supreme Court decision made it possible for her to achieve at a remarkable level that has been important for our society.

Imagine a young person thinking about their future today. Will their talent be realized as they confront the exclusionary practices that are becoming more and more common in our society today? Will the degrading remarks about race, equity, and diversity of those in leadership positions discourage them from pursuing that talent?

We need to learn from the achievements of those like Valerie Thomas. It’s time to imagine how we can lift up all the talent that exists in America.

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“Strong people don’t put others down. They lift them up.” – Michael Watson

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