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  • Dana Ulery: Pioneer of Statistical Computing and Architect of Large, Complex Systems
  • Irina Nikivincze (bio)

From Grinnel to JPL

Dana Lynn Ulery (1938–present) did not grow up in a typical 1950s family.1 Her mother, Meriam Mueller2 (1908–2005), was a businesswoman and active volunteer in the local hospital. Her father, Harry Tanzer, died when she was only 2 years old. Over the years the loneliness that Dana felt was replaced by her love for learning and school. Graduating from Grinnel, a small liberal arts college in Iowa, in 1959 as a double major in mathematics and English literature, Dana’s future looked uncertain, but exciting. She was getting married and the young family was going to tour the West and move to Pasadena, California.3 As with many other women of that time her choices were limited—she could be a secretary, nurse, stewardess, or teacher. Just in case, she got a teaching certificate and quite unexpectedly got an offer to teach mathematics in a high school in Burbank, California, minutes away from her husband’s workplace. Her initial excitement soon dissipated after she learned that the class that she was teaching was filled with kids who could not read. There was more to it. All of those kids were boys from a reform school—teenagers who already had gotten in trouble with the law. A young female math teacher with her rules and homework was the least of their concerns and perhaps a source for amusement. The boys refused to do homework and Dana’s teaching aspirations vanished day by day as her focus shifted from content to class discipline. One year was enough for Dana to realize that teaching was not what she wanted to do in her life and that she needed a new job.

In Pasadena, her husband, Harris Ulery, just started his graduate studies in organic chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. Since Caltech was a technical school, Dana was convinced that somewhere there was a job for a math major. Having gotten her confidence together, Dana walked the halls of Caltech, stopping by open doors and inquiring about jobs. “Somebody finally took pity at me and sent me to JPL,” she later recalled.4

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a large federally funded research center, was located near Caltech. Even though JPL hired female mathematicians in the 1940s to 1960s to perform trajectory calculations, it was in an all-female unit.5 There was no precedent for hiring women for an engineering job. A man at JPL who interviewed Dana was amused by an enthusiastic and math-minded young lady. Nevertheless, he offered her a job and took care of the paperwork, so she did not need to go to Human Resources. Dana became the first and only female engineer at JPL in 1960. JPL did not hire other women engineers for the next 7 or more years. One of Dana’s first assignments was to evaluate the systematic pointing errors in the Goldstone Polar-Mount Antenna using the star-track data.6 During the following three years she worked on real-time tracking systems and algorithms for NASA’s Deep Space Network—the work that was exciting and that she became very fond of.

The official title that Dana held was of a junior engineer and it meant that she was paid less than her colleagues. Having learned that from a friend, Dana succeeded at changing her title (and the corresponding pay) to one of a Research Engineer. She greatly enjoyed her job at JPL but not for long. In 1963, Harris was graduating with his PhD and announced that he would be looking for jobs. Although, Dana wanted to stay at Pasadena, the family weighted in, and the move was imminent.

Among the three job offers that Harris received, the least “horrible” in Dana’s opinion, was one in Delaware, OH. Dana stayed at JPL as long as she could and then it was time to move to the East Coast. Moving to a new place meant facing the same obstacle—with no established networks, getting a new technical job would be...


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