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Valerie Lavern Thomas was born in February of 1943 in Baltimore, Maryland and even as a young girl, she grew up fascinated with technology and would go on to create 3-D imaging technology.
Dr. Thomas, a scientist, mathematician, physicist, and inventor, was also reared in the historic all-Black Cherry Hill community. Her parents instilled in her the importance of education that resulted “in an inquiry-based hands-on learning environment, in the home and community.”
According to Biography, Dr. Thomas would later attend the all-girls public Western High School. The Baltimore magnet school at Howard and Centre streets was racially integrated under police protection in 1954 by Myrtle Mack-Dutton, Anastasia Phillips, Alfreda Hughes, June Lee and Margery Flanagan, Ann Williams, and Ann Fredricka Todd. Three years later, Thomas enrolled, excelled academically, and developed an interest in physics before graduating in 1960.
At the time, scientific subjects were not considered important or suitable for women, and the school had just been integrated. So, no one encouraged Thomas to take the advanced math classes that were offered at her school, yet she remained determined to not only enter what we call STEM today, but change it forever.
When Thomas enrolled at Morgan State University as one of only two women in her class to major in physics, she remained an excellent student, and soon had acquired the knowledge of mathematics that led her to a position as a mathematical/data analyst for NASA.
According to Upworthy, in 1976, Thomas attended a scientific seminar where she chanced upon an exhibit that demonstrated an illusion using a light bulb. Using concave mirrors, the exhibit fooled the viewer into believing that a light bulb was glowing even after it had been unscrewed from its socket. This inspired the scientist, who began experimenting with flat and concave mirrors.
While the former would have a reflection on a certain object that would seem to be behind the glass, the latter would have a reflection that would actually be in front of the glass, producing a three-dimensional illusion. This is what formed the basis of 3D technology. Four years later, on October 21, 1980, Thomas obtained the patent for the illusion transmitter, a device that NASA still uses today. Her technology has also been adapted in the film industry to showcase 3-D movies.
According to Blackpast, Thomas has received NASA’s GSFC Award of Merit, authored numerous scientific technical reports, and was bestowed a Monmouth University honorary doctorate (1993).
Dr. Valerie L. Thomas has been an important scientific pioneer who has inspired many, particularly Black women, to enter STEM fields. Currently, she resides in Prince George’s County, Maryland and is active with STEM organizations such as Science, Mathematics, Aerospace, Research, and Technology, Inc., and SHADES OF BLUE.
In 1995, Valerie Thomas, 78, retired as associate chief of NASA’s Space Science Data Operations Office.