The Princess Royal honoured a ‘hidden figure’ of engineering with the Prince Philip Medal this week, ahead of what would have been her late father’s 100th birthday.
Dr Gladys West, an American mathematician whose pioneering work in modelling led the way to the creation of GPS, was honoured by Princess Anne in a virtual ceremony earlier this week.
Speaking to Princess Anne via video call, Dr West said of her win—the first time a woman has won the Prince Philip Medal in its 30-year-history—that “It is hard for me to believe that I was a little black girl on the farm who had a dream to get off the farm, get educated, and make enough money to take care of myself. And now, I have realized my dreams and reached a height beyond what I anticipated. I encourage young women to believe in yourself, find your passion, work hard and apply yourself, stay committed, find a mentor, participate in activities that relate to your passion, never give up, always keep setting new goals and continue to strive to reach them, and most of all – follow your dreams.”
After graduating from university, Dr West taught math and science courses before going to work at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia, in 1956. She worked there as a programmer and project manager on data-processing systems that analysed satellite data.
Dr West also participated in an award-winning study that “proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune,” per a Royal Academy of Engineering press release, and began to study data for models of the earth’s shape, worked on projects that could remotely sense oceans, and developed the technology to calculate and model the shape of the earth.
Per the Royal Academy of Engineering, “Generating an extremely accurate model required her to employ complex algorithms to account for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort earth’s shape. Her data ultimately became an important enabler for the Global Positioning System (GPS).”
“We are delighted to present Dr Gladys West with the Prince Philip Medal, our most prestigious individual award,” said Professor Bashir Al-Hashimi, Chair of the Awards Committee.
“Her work on precise modelling of the earth’s surface was relied on by the engineers who realised GPS and the accuracy that is possible today harks back to the definition of the Earth’s geoid, work that Dr West achieved using sparse data from early satellites, working with early computers that required elegant, efficient mathematics and extraordinary diligence.”
The Prince Philip Medal was created in 1991 by the Royal Academy of Engineering—itself a creation of the late Prince Philip in 1976. It is presented periodically to an engineer, regardless of their location, “who has made an exceptional contribution to engineering as a whole through practice, management or education.”
The first Prince Philip Medal was presented to Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle, creator of the jet engine.