Women in Tech: Annie Easley

Annie Easley was an American computer scientist, mathematician and rocket scientist from Birmingham, Alabama.

Annie Easley

Despite the challenges of educational and career opportunities being limited due to segregation, Easley excelled in her studies becoming valedictorian of her graduating class. She always had an interest in nursing at a young age, however, around the age of 16 she decided to study pharmacy. In 1950, Easley majored in pharmacy for about two years at Xavier University in New Orleans.  It was then an African-American Roman Catholic University. In 1977, she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics from Cleveland State University. 

After reading a local newspaper about twin sisters who worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics as “computers” (NACA) Easley was inspired to apply for a job there. She was hired two weeks later, being one of four African American out of 2500 employees – this would be the start of her 34-year career. Easley’s career began as the “human computer” doing computations for researchers, it involved investigating problems and doing calculations by hand. As the technology progressed, so did Easley, she became an adept computer programmer, using the Formula Translating System (Fortran) and the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) to support multiple National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) programs. Some of her accomplishments included developing and implementing code used in researching energy-conversion systems, analyzing alternative power technologies (the battery technology used for early hybrid vehicles), and the Centaur upper-stage rocket. 

Although she had many achievements in her professional career, she returned to school where she earned a mathematics degree. She was a firm believer in education, she participated in tutoring programs as well as was an active participant in the speakers’ bureau where she would educate students about NASA’s work. She participated in hopes to break down barriers for women and people of color to consider STEM careers. She took on an additional role at the U.S.  Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, advising management to address issues of gender, race, and age in discriminating. You can say she handled complaints from all levels. During her role, she also helped pave the way for women’s rights at the center with the focus being on not how women were dressed but instead of what they were producing. Easley’s next step in her career was working on a project that examined the damage to the ozone layer; her assignments included studies to determine the life of storage batteries. She also studied the economic advantages of co-generating power plants that obtained byproducts from coal and steam.

Her work helped lay the technological foundation for future space shuttle launches and launches of communication, military, and weather satellites. Easley lived in a time when she would face discrimination, whether it was because she was a woman or a woman of color; she experienced it during her career when her face was cut out of a photo that would be put on display. It never stopped her from reaching her career goals, throughout this time she still advocated for and encouraged minority students at colleges to work in STEM careers. Also became the first President of NASA’s Lewis Ski Club and participated in other local ski clubs in the Cleveland area. 

After her 34-year career, she retired in 1989, she remained an active member of the Speaker’s Bureau and the Business & Professional Women’s association. Quoted by one of her coworkers about Easley, “She loves life and encourages others to do the same.” In a NASA oral history interview in 2001, she consistently spoke about the importance of teamwork and expressed her appreciation for those she worked with. She really was the support for employee morale, those who knew her would say it was not just about the work she did but the difference she made, her positive attitude, energy, and her kindness. I personally think this is important in a workplace, being surrounded by people who inspire and encourage you. Easley died on June 25, 2011, at the age of 78.

“Success isn’t about how much money you make; it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.” – Michelle Obama. 

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