A Place for Amy — A Hidden Figures Story

by Ciriaco Gonzales, PhD

Amy (2010)

In 2017, Amy Gonzales went to see a movie. It was an ordinary day and a pretty ordinary activity for Amy. She was going to see the movie Hidden Figures. As she sat in the theater and watched this film, the story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, female, African American mathematicians who worked for NASA during the early days of the space program, a feeling of familiarity crept over Amy. Instantly, memories of long days at the physical science laboratory and the Sandia Corporation in New Mexico came to her. She was brought back to a time when she had to wait in line for a calculator. It was a time long ago but was suddenly being projected right in front of her. It was the same story Amy had lived. This story was her story — almost.

Amy and her mother, Ramona (1956)

A MALE DOMAIN

In 1954, mathematics was considered a man’s world. Most teachers did not value math skills in women, instead emphasizing the humanities. But that wouldn’t matter to Amy, a young woman from a small village called Luis Lopez in Socorro County, New Mexico. By the time she was in high school, she had already made up her mind to major in mathematics at New Mexico A&M, now New Mexico State University.

Growing up, Amy lived in a rural community that frowned on a college education for a young woman like her.

“It will be a waste,” they would say. “You’re just going to get married and change diapers anyway,” they told her.

Amy’s school was just as unhelpful. Few math and science courses, unhelpful teachers, and a lack of financial resources created an atmosphere around Amy that she was not college material despite having excellent grades.

THE FIRST LONG-RANGE ROCKETS

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Organ Mountains, east of the campus, the government was testing rockets on the White Sands Proving Grounds. After the Second World War, the U.S. Defense Department had hired German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and other scientists to work on the further development of the V2 rocket, which had been created in Germany as the world’s first long-range ballisticmissile. This work would eventually lay the foundation for liquid-fuel missiles and space launchers.

Rocket scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun in his office

Back in her home, Amy had spent hours of her childhood solving math problems with her father. In 7th and 8th grade she had a single teacher who praised and encouraged her love of math. Yet it wouldn’t be until high school that Amy would realize she would need to write her own story.

At the beginning of her freshman year of high school, Amy was placed in a general math class, despite excellent grades and above-average math skills. In fact, she had already worked through all her older siblings’ math books with her father. Although Amy was painfully shy, she was proud of her skills.

Insulted by being placed in a class she knew was too rudimentary for her, Amy decided this would not define her.

Amy at her high school graduation (1954)

Nothing external would define her. From this moment on, she would define herself. Years later, sitting in that theater, Amy looked back on this moment and smiled.

CALCULATING SQUARE ROOTS

In 1954, Amy was the third of her siblings to attend New Mexico A&M, joining her older sister Josie. The girls’ parents, Ciriaco and Ramona Gonzales, did not have the means to pay for college, so Amy and Josie found jobs at the physical science laboratory (PSL) on campus.

Amy and Josie (1980's)

As new student workers at PSL, Amy and Josie were among two other young Mexican American women, Lupe Story and Josie Abeyta, tasked to work on the mathematics for computing the trajectories of the rockets that were being fired by von Braun and his team.

Like Amy, the young women were proud to have survived a culture where girls were discouraged from entering the world of science and technology much less pursuing a college education. Here they were, at PSL, doing work that was usually done by men.

At first, when the girls arrived at PSL, there were no computers. Instead, Amy and Josie had to use what was available: mechanical calculators (Friden and Monroe) and their own knowledge and skills. If either of them needed to use square roots in their computations, there was only one machine in the entire room that could accomplish the task, and they had to stand in line to use it. These days any 99-cent calculator can do square roots! Through their hundreds of hours of complex calculations, Amy and Josie contributed to the early efforts of the nation’s rocket program. Eventually this work led to the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and the U.S. space program as we know it now.

A Friden mechanical calculator.

CALCULUS MEETS PNEUMONIA

Some of the girls would go on to major in the biological sciences. Amy chose to major in mathematics, taking courses in trigonometry, calculus, and several others throughout her years at New Mexico A&M. As she neared graduation, Amy became increasingly excited to begin her career in mathematics.

However, during her senior year in college she experienced yet another setback in the classroom. During her senior year, Amy was taking advanced, applied calculus for engineers. For Amy, this class wasn’t easy as she had no engineering background.

But more importantly for her, Amy was the only woman in the class and it was made clear right away she was not welcome.

Amy (1959)

She struggled throughout the semester but followed along as best she could, remembering her mantra, this will not define me. Then, right before finals week, Amy was hospitalized with bronchial pneumonia. Most professors allowed her to take the grade she had earned up to that point, but not her calculus professor. Instead, he gave her an oral exam, seemingly looking for the most difficult problems to give her. In the end, Amy received a “D” in the class, which meant she could not graduate. This will not define me, she remembered.

It would be two years before Amy could retake the class at another university and have her credits transferred. Amy officially graduated in 1958 and immediately went to work for the Sandia Corporation, now called Sandia Laboratories, a contractor for the Atomic Energy Commission, in Albuquerque. The Atomic Energy Commission was later split into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy.

A NEW CHALLENGE

At first, this new job at Sandia was a continuation of what she had been doing at PSL, calculating trajectories of experimental rockets as well as other projects involving mathematics. By this time, there were mainframe computers, and Amy held the title of programmer.

Sandia Laboratories (1951)

While working at Sandia, Amy was asked to work on something new, joining a group that was to set up a seismic station for Sandia. Dr. Richter, of the Richter scale, was brought in to give the group a short course in seismology. After several months, the accuracy of their reporting was sufficient to qualify Sandia’s seismic station as a seismic recording station.

BACK TO WHERE IT BEGAN

Amy would eventually marry and have three children, for whom she took a break from her work to raise. But once the children were older, Amy took her skills back to where she knew she could have the biggest impact.

It was a place where her dreams had been discouraged over and over, yet she felt compelled to return and flip the script for the next generation. She returned to the classroom.

Amy took a job as a math and science teacher in the Albuquerque public schools. Soon she would be asked to start the first math/science program for gifted children in the state. Through the years, Amy taught computer programming, fractals, scale models, statistics, robotics, and other topics that were not included in the normal curriculum. After retiring from Albuquerque public schools, she was hired as an adjunct mathematics professor at the University of New Mexico, Valencia Campus, where she taught for seven more years, focusing on teaching prospective teachers to emphasize hands-on learning and to celebrate math as often as possible with their students.

Today, Amy’s former students are well known scientists, doctors, and lawyers. Her children, too, are grown and well into their careers, including a daughter with a doctorate in veterinary medicine and a PhD in pharmacology; a son who was an instructor at the University of New Mexico and a director at Sandia Laboratories; and a son who is a master home builder and business man.

A PLACE FOR AMY

An impact on society, a meaningful career, and an accomplished family — looking back, Amy is humbled by what she was able to achieve, starting out as a young woman in a small village where most of the people who surrounded her had discouraged her. Amy remembers that pivotal moment when she was placed in the basic math class. She remembers long nights working in old math books with her father. She remembers graduating despite the explicit gender biases of a calculus professor. She remembers walking into PSL, Sandia, and New Mexico State University for the first time and sitting down to work on trajectories.

These were not positions in which she was placed. They were spaces she had earned and expanded on, paving the way for the next generation of mathematicians to have a place there too.

Although there has not yet been public recognition of Amy and her friends’ contributions to mathematics or the U.S. space program, Amy finds comfort in knowing that Mexican American women have been in the forefront of science, math, engineering, and technology for years. Memorialized by both Hidden Figures and her story told here, Amy and her colleagues, both named and unnamed, were pioneers in the beginning of rocket science. They were leaders in the movement of women in STEM.

The story projected on the screen in that movie theater is her story too and nobody can place her elsewhere.

Amy (2010)

Now a widow, living in Los Lunas, New Mexico, Amy lives close to one of her sons and spends her days with her grandchildren and keeping in touch with her siblings: Josie, Ralph, Edwin, and Ciriaco. She also quilts, geometrics of course, and enjoys outings with friends.

About the Author

Dr. Ciriaco Q. Gonzales is the retired director of the Division of Disadvantage Assistance Programs, Bureau of Health Professions, Department of Health and Human Services. He was previously a health-scientist administrator at NIH, a professor at the College of Santa Fe, and a research scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. He obtained his PhD from UC Berkeley and is proud to be Amy’s brother.

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Dedicated to advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in science. Science, culture, and community in the movement for true diversity in STEM.