Doing the Math

Saluting Black Mathematicians

Five African American Mathematicians

by Cathy Maglio

Every February  we celebrate Black people who have made contributions to the world. This month I would like to recognize five contemporary African Americans who have made their marks in the field of mathematics. Each of these mathematicians has contributed and continues to contribute to the field  in very different ways.

Robert Moses (1935 – 2021)

Robert Moses was born in Harlem and attended public school there. After graduating, he attended Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, graduating in 1956. He then came to Harvard where he earned his master’s degree. After receiving his degree, Moses taught math in New York City.  In 1960 he moved to Atlanta to become involved with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From 1969 to 1976 he taught math in Tanzania, then returned to Harvard. He received the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1982. This grant allowed him to launch the Algebra Project, an innovative approach that uses mathematics as an organizing tool for quality education for all students. The Algebra Project works with underperforming middle and high school students to reach the goal of graduating high school in four years with the skills necessary to enroll in credit bearing college math classes.

Bob Moses loved math and wanted students to love it too. He wanted them to see and explore math in the world around them. To that end,  the Bob Mosses MathTrail in Cambridge was created. This MathTrail is a mile -long path where visitors can engage with visual and interactive math activities. The  activities include examining painted candy circles, measuring how far one can jump, exploring patterns of a gigantic number, and a lot more. As Moses wished, it shows that math does not need to be stuffy and boring. A fun place for children and adults, it keeps his work alive, as does the Algebra Project.  

Valerie Thomas (1943 - )

Valerie Thomas developed an interest in electronics, mathematics and physics at an early age,  in a time when women were not encouraged to study these subjects and African Americans did not have the same opportunities as white students. Despite these obstacles, Valerie graduated high school and earned her bachelor’s degree in physics from Morgan State College (now University) in Baltimore.

After college, Valerie began her career as a data analyst at NASA where she developed the image processing system for Landsat, the uncrewed satellites that collect information about the Earth’s natural resources. The Landsat project led to the monitoring of wheat yields around the world, as well as many other critical resources.

In 1976, Valerie became interested in 3D illusions. This interest led to the invention of the Illusion Transmitter which she patented in 1980. This system uses a video recorder to take a picture of a floating image in front of a concave mirror. The video is sent to a second camera which projects the image in front of a second concave mirror. The total process creates the optical illusion of a 3D image.

Valerie retired from NASA in 1995. In 2004 she earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Delaware. She worked to encourage young people, especially African Americans and girls,  to pursue education in the STEM fields. 

John Urschel (1961 - )

John Urschel’s  introduction to math began as a child doing puzzles and math workbooks. After graduating high school, he attended Penn State to play football and study math. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math from Penn State. While at the school, he received the William V. Campbell trophy given annually to college football’s top scholar athlete. After graduating, he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens of the National Football League in 2014. John was living his dream as a professional football player. But after 3 years on the gridiron,  he surprised everyone by retiring from football to pursue a PhD in Mathematics at MIT.  

In a keynote address at the 2018 conference of the  National Council of Teachers of Mathematics John told the audience that math is for everyone and is interwoven into everyday life. Math is not just solving equations or measuring the sides of triangles. Math is working with money, using logic to solve a problem, figuring out the best deal at the supermarket, and how much interest you will pay when financing a car or mortgage. Everyone uses math even when they do not realize it.  Urschel received his PhD in Math from MIT in 2021. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the math department.  

John’s 2019 memoir tells the story of balancing the messy, physical world of professional football and the cerebral elegance of mathematics. For him, athletics and academics can coexist simultaneously.  He is a truly unique role model for students who combine sports with academic interests.

Fern Hunt (1948 - )

Fern Hunt’s interest in science stemmed from receiving the gift of a chemistry set when she was 9. She attended and graduated from the Bronx High School of Science. After high school, she attended Bryn Mawr College and earned an A.B. in mathematics in 1969. She then earned an M.S. and Ph.D. from New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematics in 1978.

Fern began her teaching career at the University of Utah. She then moved on to Howard University. She also served on the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) Mathematical Advisory Board. If you took the GRE between 1988 and 1991, Fern may have contributed to the questions you answered.

After many years in academia, Fern took her interests in applied probability and dynamic systems– mathematical models that describe movement– to the Nation Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). At NIST she conducted research in biomathematics to look at genetic variations and patterns in bacteria. Fern was honored with the Arthur S. Fleming Award for outstanding federal service for her contributions to mathematical biology.

Fern Hunt’s work is an example of how two seemingly different sciences, biology and mathematics, are interconnected.

Dr. Lonnie Johnson (1949 - )

Have you ever doused someone with a Super Soaker® water gun? If you have, you should thank Dr. Lonnie Johnson for inventing it.

Dr. Johnson holds a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering and an M.S. in Nuclear Engineering from Tuskegee University. He was also awarded an honorary Ph.D. in science from the same university. After taking his master’s in 1975 he began his career working for government agencies and the Air Force. His projects included the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Mars Observer project. While employed by the Air Force, Dr. Johnson received the Air Force Achievement Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal.

After leaving government Dr. Johnson formed his own company and invented the Super Soaker® water gun. He licensed the toy before selling it to Larami Corporation. The Super Soakerâ generated over $200 million in retail sales and became the number one selling toy in America. The Super Soakerâ is now owned by Hasbro Corporation and sales have totaled close to one billion dollars. The Super Soakerâ is one of over 100 patents that Dr. Johnson owns, with more pending .

When not inventing toys, Dr. Johnson and his companies are working on a new generation of rechargeable batteries and thermodynamic energy conversion technology.

Lonnie Johnson’s career shows that math and science do not necessarily need to lead to futuristic technologies, but can be used to develop toys like the Super Soakerâ that children and adults can enjoy right now. Weather permitting, of course.

These are just a few representative people that have turned mathematics into careers. They demonstrate that math is not just for the classroom. We do math every day of our lives, mostly without realizing it. There is no career that does not require doing math in some form.

The unsubtle message to students is: pay attention and do your best in your math classes,  because you will always need it in some form no matter what career you choose.

Cathy Maglio is JFYNetWorks Learning Specialist.

Other posts authored by Cathie can be found here.

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