In honor of both Thanksgiving Day in the US, and Native American Heritage Month, I thought I’d start a new series by kicking off with the first Native American woman engineer, Mary Golda Ross . In 1958, she was a guest on the TV game show “What’s My Line?” where the panel failed to guess what she did for a living, though they got close, guessing that it had something to do with missiles . At one point, one of the panel makes the comment that it’s not like she gets into the nose of these things, which, while technically true, probably steered him away from guessing that her mathematics background gave her the expertise to design them.
While her Native American heritage may have been downplayed at various points in her life, she credited it for her academic success, as her Cherokee upbringing stressed the importance of education for any sex . Born in Oklahoma and the great-granddaughter of famous Cherokee Chief John Ross, Mary was identified as gifted from a young age and encouraged to pursue her education. She went on to receive a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1920 and a Master’s degree in 1938. She taught mathematics in Oklahoma during the Great Depression and then, in 1942, joined the Aerodynamics and Structures department at the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation as an engineer. Eventually, she was one of the core group of engineers who started the Lockheed Missiles and Space Co., now Lockheed Martin. Her notable accomplishments include preliminary design work on orbital space systems and early manned space exploration missions.
She retired in the 1970s, but continued to work in engaging young Native American women and encourage them to pursue careers in the sciences and engineering after rediscovering her connection to her Cherokee heritage. In 2004, at the age of 96, Ross donned traditional Cherokee dress and participated in the opening ceremonies of the National Museum of the American Indian . In 2008, she passed away, just shy of her 100th birthday. She left a large endowment to the NMAI. She showed her mathematical mind once more in requesting that the gift be given as an endowment, rather than a single large scholarship to maximize returns .
Women like Mary Ross were trailblazers, not just for women in STEM, whose impact reaches further back in history, but for women of color in STEM, whose role models may be fewer and further between. Her example and her work to encourage young Native American women serve as an inspiration for all who want to extend the diversity of STEM fields.