February 8, 1943 – Present
Notable: Scientist & Inventor
Valerie LaVerne Thomas was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and grew up in the historically Black Cherry Hill neighborhood. From a very young age, Thomas was curious about how things worked. While her parents taught Thomas to value education, they nor her teachers encouraged Thomas’ interest in math and science as they were deemed unsuitable subjects for girls. Her father was a tinkerer but when Thomas was about eight years old and brought home The Boy’s First Book On Electronics hoping they would work on the projects together, he declined.
Thomas attended Western High School, an all-girls public school that was integrated just three years before she enrolled. She was a good student and Thomas along with her classmates were encouraged to apply themselves and take advantage of the education being offered. Yet, there were little to no advanced math and science classes available. Thomas had to seek out classes and other opportunities to learn advanced math and science.
For college, Thomas enrolled at the HBCU that is now Morgan State University as only one of two female physics majors in her class. Finally, in this college environment, Thomas found her interest in STEM supported and encouraged by professors. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in physics, Thomas was hired as a mathematical data analyst at NASA.
Early in her career at NASA, Thomas was tasked with analyzing data from the group of satellites that formed the Orbiting Geophysical Observatory. Later during the 70s, Thomas was tasked with managing the Landsat program. Landsat was another group of satellites that orbited the earth to gather data about natural resources. The Large Area Crop Inventory Experiment used images from the cameras on the Landsat satellites to track wheat production across the globe. As leader of the experiment, Thomas was tasked with guiding the development of an image-processing system for Landsat which became the first satellite to transmit images back to Earth while the satellite remained in orbit.
In 1976, Thomas visited a science exhibit where an optical illusion was presented. The exhibit depicted a light bulb that seemed to remain illuminated even when it was unscrewed from its lamp. The illusion was achieved through the use of two bulbs and a concave mirror that made the image appear to float in front rather than behind the mirror.
Thomas’ interest was piqued and she wondered if the images could not only be displayed but transmitted. Up to this point, video and television images were only displayed flat. Thomas began to experiment with using the illusion to capture and transmit three-dimensional images. In just four years, Thomas created the “illusion transmitter” which used two concave mirrors at the transmitting and receiving ends to create and transmit a three-dimensional image. She was awarded a patent for her creation in 1980.
The illusion transmitter was first put into use by NASA where it is still in use today. The transmitter was later configured for surgeries, giving surgeons a 3-dimensional view inside the body rather than the flat views produced by other imaging systems. In the commercial sphere, the illusion transmitter allowed for the transmission of 3D images on television and in video.
Thomas remained at NASA and continued to move up in the organization. During her tenure, Thomas managed the design of computer programs that would translate complex data and math into easy-to-understand text and images for NASA’s various space programs. In addition to her patent, Thomas received numerous awards from NASA in recognition of her contributions.
After retiring from NASA in 1995, Thomas spent some of her time mentoring students through various programs and organizations. She also made it a point to encourage more Black students, especially females, to explore their interests in STEM. Thomas still works as a substitute teacher at a science and tech charter school in Maryland hoping to further inspire children.
- Biography.com Editors. 2021. “Valerie L. Thomas.” Biography.Com. Hearst Magazine Media, Inc. . April 12, 2021. https://www.biography.com/scientists/valerie-thomas.
- Guzmán, Will. 2021. “Valerie Thomas (1943- ).” Blackpast.Org. June 3, 2021. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/valerie-thomas-1943/.
- “Meet Dr. Valerie L. Thomas, Landsat Image Processing Specialist.” 2019. NASA. NASA. April 25, 2019. https://mynasadata.larc.nasa.gov/stem-career-connections/meet-dr-valerie-l-thomas-landsat-image-processing-specialist.
- “Valerie Thomas.” n.d. Black History in America. Accessed November 14, 2023b. https://www.myblackhistory.net/Valerie_Thomas.htm.
- “Valerie Thomas.” 2023. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. February 4, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Valerie-Thomas.
- “Valerie Thomas.” n.d. Lemelson. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Accessed November 25, 2023. https://lemelson.mit.edu/resources/valerie-thomas.
- “Valerie Thomas.” n.d. The Glinda Factor. Accessed November 14, 2023a. https://theglindafactor.com/valerie-thomas/.
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