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Hidden Figures' at NUWC Division Newport helped Navy meet its mission

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MARCOA Media
Story by Public Affairs Office on 04/01/2019
NEWPORT, R.I. With the backdrop of a true story about women who played a large role at NASA in the 1960s made into the movie "Hidden Figures," a Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport manager presented a NUWC version of this women's history on March 20 as part of the command's celebration of Women's History Month.

Ann V. Turley, of Saunderstown, Rhode Island, head, Surface Ship and Aviation System Division, told the stories of Genevieve Mathison, Helen McCabe, Mary Rita Powers, Helen Martha Sternberg and Patricia J. Dean, as some of NUWC's own "hidden figures."

A few years ago, Turley was inspired by the movie to start a collection of names and stories about women successful at the Naval Sea System Command (NAVSEA) and NUWC. On a news program she saw a story featuring NAVSEA's Raye Montague, who was referred to as a "human computer." Born in 1935, Montague grew up in the South and was not able to attend engineering school because of her race. After she went to college, she started to work at NAVSEA and is credited as the first person to design a Navy ship, Frigate FFG7 class, using computer-aided design, or CAD. She was also the first female program manager of ships in the U.S. Navy. Montague would have been a customer of NUWC Newport if she was working today.

"To hear her talk and learn about the obstacles that she faced and the level to which she rose was very inspirational for me, and pushed me to look and see who we had as our own hidden figures within NUWC," Turley said.

Turley researched histories for the following NUWC women:

Genevieve Mathison worked at the Naval Underwater Systems Center (NUSC), NUWC Newport's predecessor, in the 1950s. She was a graduate of Radcliffe College with a degree in chemistry and had a degree in physics from Boston College. Mathison had a number of accomplishments at Harvard, worked at China Lake in California to improve the guidance system of missiles, and helped to design and operate an acoustic tank for torpedo testing at NUSC. She participated in many torpedo test events, some of which were held off Gould Island in Narragansett Bay. Initially, NUSC's commander at the time would not allow Mathison to go to Gould Island because he did not want a woman on a boat or there were no bathroom facilities for women on the island. The commander had also insisted that Mathison wear a skirt. In spite of these obstacles, she continued to do her job.

Dr. Erin Gauch of NUWC Newport's Ranges, Engineering and Analysis Department, who is married to Mathison's grandson, shared a story about her in-law.

"Mathison was a bit of a rebel," Gauch said. "She was a frequent flouter of on-base parking regulations. I think she was one parking violation away from being fired."

Helen McCabe began her government career at the Naval Underwater Sound Laboratory (NUSL) in New London, Connecticut, in 1947 as the first civilian personnel director. She is also believed to be the first female personnel director in the entire research and development community. Tasked with providing expert guidance to high-level scientists during the Sound Lab's transition from its previous designation as a Columbia University Research Laboratory structure to a federal civilian service institution, McCabe was a "dynamic, articulate, extremely capable and highly competitive" woman, according to a special women's issue published in the command newsletter in March 1996.

The first female winner of the prestigious NUSL Decibel Award, McCabe instituted an internship program and was known to be sensitive to both gender and race issues. She was an advisor to nine commanding officers and three technical directors during her 30-plus year career.

"She commanded the respect of the technical community to who she gave advice and counsel," the story states.

"If Helen were in business today, she would break through that glass ceiling' and never look back," said former co-worker Mary Shea Turner in the article.

Mary Rita Powers, a mathematician, began her 33-year career in the Digital Computing Branch at NUSL in 1946, when few female mathematicians worked for the government. Powers was well respected but struggled to advance, according to the command newsletter. Promotions came from managing a project, which required going to sea. Whenever the subject arose, and Powers asked to be sent, the response was: "Well, after all Rita, you are a woman."

"I believe, in terms of her professional capabilities, Mary Ria Powers was the most underrated person at the [NUSL]," stated co-worker Francis G. Weigle in the 1996 article.

"She was a first-class mathematician and a warm friendly mentor," said another co-worker, Robert Jennings. " As other women mathematicians joined our group, Mary Rita was a role model and an enthusiastic mentor."

In 1967, Powers finally got her chance and became the first female NUSL employee to ride a ship when she was sent to write and install a computer program aboard MSTS Mizar. The captain informed her that "the men were willing to give it a try." Despite a hurricane with 34-foot waves, Powers proved more than capable of completing the mission.

"Powers had that struggle back in the 60s, and we still have that struggle today," Turley said.

Powers was awarded the Decibel Award upon retirement in 1979.

Another NUSL employee, Eleanor Harris, was the first woman engineer to design submarine antenna hardware in the 1950s.

"She never thought of engineering as a man's profession," stated a co-worker in a 1974 NUSCOPE article.

Harris began her career as the first woman student trainee to break into a technical field at NUSL and was hired in the late 1950s as an engineer for submarine antenna design. " Within a short time, she established herself as a scientist who could quickly design and produce antenna hardware for fleet evaluation."

Like many women of her generation, Harris took an 11-year hiatus to raise her family; she returned to NUSL in 1971 and produced her own antenna patent.

"Eleanor excelled at antenna development because she continued to refine and focus her experiments so they would eventually lead to design solutions," a 1996 article states. "Although her designs remain in demand and in the procurement process today, we remain far more impressed by her character and courage as she continued to work in the face of terminal illness."

Turley shared more stories about other courageous women like Helen Martha Sternberg, who was a recognized authority on the generic sonar model. She built environmental databases for submarine trainers, many of which are still being used and are very important today.

Turley spoke about Mary A. Cowell, a technical writer who wrote a historical perspective on torpedo development.

"She made the most profound impact on me," stated Sheila Paglierani, McLaughlin Research Corp. "She would give you a sense of wit and wisdom that I will never forget."

Patricia J. Dean, the first woman at NUWC Newport to rise to the level of GS-15, and who then became Newport's first female member of the Senior Executive Service, was also discussed. Dean was head of the Surface Undersea Warfare Department and was appointed acting technical director for NUWC in June of 2002. Dean served as NUWC technical director from 2002 until her death in January 2003, at age 53.

At a memorial service, Dean was awarded one of Navy's highest honors, the Superior Civilian Service Award, "in recognition of her significant technical and managerial achievements and her exemplary service to the Navy and to the command." Her 26-year career was "characterized by her dedication, resourcefulness, and an unrelenting drive to keep the U.S. at the forefront of technological development."

Dean also led the technical direction and program management of the 200-member AN/BSY-2 integrated combat control and sonar system team. She stressed the importance of team building and what individual members can bring to a group. In addition to serving as AN/BSY-2 program manager, Dean also served as head of the Combat System and Evaluation Division, the Surface Undersea Warfare Directorate, and the Surface Undersea Warfare Department, prior to her appointment as NUWC Technical Director.

"She had two unique skills. One was getting me to do jobs I did not want to do. And it was the right thing to do. She had a way of explaining it to you that it was important to the mission," said Don Aker, NUWC Newport's deputy technical director. "The other thing was that she was a system engineer of system engineers. She really understood submarine combat systems, sonar systems phenomenal engineer, phenomenal leader."

Dean was Turley's mentor, and the lessons that she and the other women left behind are crucial to women moving forward, Turley said. Some of those lessons are that:

A person, no matter what age, has something to bring to the group;
The right decisions are not always the popular ones;
Technical rigor is empowering it also addresses communication gaps and reduces drama;
Take the opportunity to thank someone before you no longer have it; and
Share your lessons learned.
Turley also talked about the lessons learned from the movie "Hidden Figures" and the international competition that was part of the race to the moon. She noted that the United States is currently in a similar competition with navies around the world.

"We have a mission that we must adhere to as we continue to face the challenges in our workplace," Turley said. "When people are faced with obstacles, they are not focused on their work, the mission."

In order to support women in the workforce and meet the mission, Turley advised:

Everyone needs to support the mission, to support each other - Make sure that everyone on the team is engaged, everyone feels included;
Technical rigor and fail safes are key. Who is checking your work? Are there places where it is safe to fail? This means testing things at an earlier stage or reviewing work at an earlier place before the work gets out to the fleet; and
Leaders must address the next change, solve the next problem.
"It all goes back to how you want to be remembered when you leave here," Turley said. "Do you want to be remembered by your position or your title? Or do you want to be remembered as to how you helped someone get to that next level or help someone through a crisis?"

NUWC Division Newport, part of the Naval Sea System Command, is one of two divisions of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. NUWC Division Newport's mission is to provide research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures. NUWC's other division is located in Keyport, Washington.

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