Valerie L. Thomas was born in May of 1943 in Maryland. She was fascinated with technology as a very young child. At age eight her curiosity about how things worked inspired her to borrow a book called “The Boy’s First Book On Electronics," which she took home hoping her father would help her take on some of the projects in it. After all, he liked to tinker with radios and television sets. But he did not help her.
Thomas attended an all-girls high school that did not help her, either. At the time, scientific subjects were not considered important or suitable for women. So, no one encouraged Thomas to take the advanced math classes that were offered at her school, and she continued to look up her technological aptitude as more of a curiosity than anything else.
This changed in college, when Thomas enrolled at Morgan State University as one of only two women in her class to major in physics. She was an excellent student, and soon she had acquired the knowledge of mathematics that led her to a position as a mathematical/data analyst for NASA.
Eventually Thomas moved up within NASA and served in a position of managing the development of NASA’s image-processing system for “Landsat,” the first satellite to send images from outer space. In 1976, she saw something at a scientific exhibit that would lead her down a path of invention. She saw an illusion of a glowing light bulb that had been unscrewed and removed from its socket. It had been created using a second bulb pointing downward in a socket beneath the top socket, employing a concave mirror to produce the illusion of the lit bulb. Unlike flat mirrors, which produce images that appear to be inside, or behind the mirror, concave mirrors create images that appear to be real, or in front of the mirror itself.
Thomas was intrigued, and wondered how such an image could be transmitted like other images were at the time. She began experimenting in 1977, setting up equipment to observe the relationship between an object and its real image relative to the positions of concave mirrors. She thought that if it were possible to present and transmit these types of realistic, three-dimensional images, great improvements could be made in video, and even television, in the future.
In 1980, she received a patent for her illusion transmitter, which uses a concave mirror on the transmitting end as well as on the receiving end to produce optical illusion images. NASA uses the technology today, and scientists are currently working on ways to incorporate it into tools for surgeons to look inside the human body, and possibly for television sets and video screens one day.
Thomas continued to work for NASA until her retirement in 1995, serving in such positions as Space Physics Analysis Network (SPAN) project manager and most recently associate chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office.
Over the course of her career Thomas contributed to computer program designs for research related to Halley's comet, ozone hole studies, and voyager satellite development. She has received a number of NASA awards including the GSFC (Goddard Space Flight Center) Award of Merit, and the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal. She continues to mentor young students through the National Technical Association (NTA) and Science Mathematics Aerospace Research and Technology (S.M.A.R.T.), Inc. .