Mary G. Ross, the first known Native American female engineer, is featured on Thursday’s Google Doodle. Today’s doodle celebrates what would be her 108th birthday, and the major contributions she made to aerospace and interplanetary space travel projects.
Ross–the great-granddaughter of Cherokee Chief John Ross–was born in Park Hill, OK in 1908. A gifted student, Ross enrolled in Northeastern State Teachers College at age 16. She studied math, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1928, according to the Cherokee Phoenix.
For nine years, Ross taught math and science at the high school level. Wanting to explore more of the world, she took a civil service exam and was hired as a statistical clerk in the US Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC.
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In 1937, the bureau sent her to Santa Fe to work as a womens’ advisor at a school for Native American artists, which later became the Institute for American Indian Art. She also got a master’s degree in mathematics at the University of Northern Colorado, and studied astronomy there as well.
“Math was more fun than anything else. It was always a game to me,” Ross said in an interview with writer Laurel Sheppard. “I was the only female in my class. I sat on one side of the room and the guys on the other side of the room. I guess they didn’t want to associate with me. But I could hold my own with them and sometimes did better.”
With the onset of World War II, Ross learned that the Lockheed Corporation was facing a shortage of skilled technical workers. She was hired there as a mathematician in 1942, and was assigned to work with the engineering staff on the P-38 Lightning fighter plane. Specifically, the engineering staff was researching the impact of pressure on the plane as it drew close to the sound barrier, and how to improve the aero elasticity of the machine.
When the war ended, Lockheed sent Ross to the University of California – Los Angeles for a professional certification in engineering. This gave her an entry point to what would become the space race.
At Lockheed, Ross worked on major projects including the Agena rocket, which directly helped the Apollo program land on the moon. The company also tapped Ross to become one of the 40 engineers involved in the secret think tank known as Lockheed Skunk Works. She was the only woman engineer in the group, Time noted. With Skunk Works, Ross developed initial concepts for interplanetary space travel, including missions to fly past Venus and Mars. She co-authored the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook Vol. III, which is about space travel from Mars to Venus.
After retiring from Lockheed in 1973, Ross worked to recruit high school and college women to the engineering field. As a member of the Society of Women Engineers, she also worked with groups like the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes.
Ross passed away in 2008, at the age of 99. While she was a pioneer in the engineering world, much work remains to draw more women and Native Americans into the field. Women earn only 18% of computer science bachelor’s degrees in the United States, and women of color earn a fraction of those degrees. Only 0.1% of people working in science and engineering are female American Indians, according to the National Science Foundation.
“To function efficiently in today’s world, you need math,” Ross said in the interview with Sheppard. “The world is so technical, if you plan to work in it, a math background will let you go farther and faster.”
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