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Pearl Young: physicist, aviation science trailblazer – and UND graduate

Pearl Young

Pearl I. Young arguably is the most noteworthy graduate of the University of North Dakota that nobody’s heard of.

Well, that may be stretching it a tad, as there is a handful on campus that know exactly who Young was and why she’s important to the world of aviation science.

Suezette Rene Bieri is one of those.

Bieri, an educational program coordinator in the UND Space Studies Department, administers the Pearl I. Young Scholarship for the North Dakota Space Grant Consortium.  The award is open to UND female undergraduates w

ho are majoring in engineering, math or science, have at least a 3.5 grade point average, and, ideally, are involved in a research project that would be of interest to NASA.

Bieri explains that Young, a Rugby, N.D., native who attended Jamestown College and graduated from UND in 1919, eventually went on to become the Chief Technical Editor for the Langley Va.,-based National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which today is known by another acronym: NASA.  Young held the position for nearly 30 years,

defining the early image of NASA and influencing the way aeronautical engineers throughout the organization communicated their ideas.

Young’s mark on the organization can still be seen today at the NASA Langley Research Center, where there is a theater named in her honor.  The name remains, but even there the memory has faded a bit, said Bieri, w

ho has toured the center.

“It’s like when you go places that have auditoriums and meeting rooms named after people and nobody knows anything about them,” she said.  “Nobody knew anything about Pearl Young when I was there.  It was just so long ago and so much had happened.”

So, to set the record straight, using NASA and University archival sources, UND Discovery will use this space to generate some much-deserved credit for this significant University alumna.

Pearl I. Young was born in 1895 and grew up on a farm just outside of Rugby.

As was common in those days, girls left home early to work as housemaids to earn money.  Pearl was no different.  She left the farm when she was 11 and moved to Rugby to work as a domestic.  She would use the money to pay her way through high school.

After high school, she enrolled at Jamestown College for two years before transferring to UND.

While at UND, she again found ways to pay her own way through school, despite a heavy course load.  She served as an assistant in the UND Physics Department “elementary laboratory,” and also worked for the U.S. Weather Bureau, while triple majoring in physics, mathematics and chemistry.

She graduated from UND with honors as a Phi Beta Kappa.  She forewent a research assistantship at the University of Minnesota in order to take a faculty teaching position in the UND Department of Physics.  The fact that she was offered such a position was significant, as it was a rarity in those days for women to work as university instructors.

Bieri noted that despite her

faculty rank and status, it would not have been unheard of that Young would have been required to “serve” at buffets and receptions put on by the UND administration.

“Even though she was a female faculty member, she would have been treated with less respect than the men were,” Bieri suspects.  “And, certainly, she would have been paid less.”

Her days at UND would not be the last time that Young would be a pioneer for women in education and science.

In 1922, she started working at NACA at Langley Field, Va., as the organization’s first professional female employee.  At the time she was hired, there were only 21 women physicists in the United States, compared to more than 860 who were men.  Most of the women physicists were teachers at women’s colleges.

When Young was hired to work at NACA, there was only one other woman physicist working in the federal government and she was in the National Bureau of Standards.

Young’s first assignment was in the Instrument Research Laboratory.  After a number of years on the job, Young suggested to her bosses that NACA establish a technical editor position to bring some organization and consistency to its many scientific publications.

She made the suggestion and she also got the job: as NACA’s first technical editor — male or female — and head of the organization’s Technical Editing Group.

In 1943, Young published the first Style Manual for Engineering Authors, which served as a reference for all engineers and scientists at Langley and other NACA centers.

Not long after creation of

the new Style Manual, Young left Langley for a job with the brand-new NACA Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory, now known as the NASA Lewis Research Center, in Cleveland.  There she trained the lab’s new technical editing staff.

In 1947, Young decided to return to academe and landed a job as an assistant professor teaching engineering physics at Pennsylvania State University in Pottsville.

She returned briefly to the Cleveland lab to do bibliographical work on the “spectroscopy of plasmas,” before retiring from NASA in 1961.  She then taught physics for a couple of years at Fresno State in California.

Young died in 1968.

In and out of the laboratory and classroom, Young was a go-getter who liked to push herself to the limit.  She often went to places where history was being made, and she was not afraid to try new things.

“She bought a ticket and flew on the first flight of the Hindenburg,” Bieri said, citing just one example of Young’s daring spirit.  “She apparently loved to travel the world and was very adventuresome.”

According to NACA/NASA documents, Young’s contributions to the organization “led the way for professional women at the Langley Research Center.”  And ever since Young, the “Center has been in the forefront of unique high-tech career opportunities for women.”

UND Discovery can’t help but bring that line of thinking a little closer to home, back to UND.  The barriers that Young plowed through and her legacy of achievement paved the way for UND grads like NASA astronaut Kar

en Nyberg, who already has one space flight under her belt and is preparing for another in 2013, and current UND undergrads, such as Korey Southerland, who is a founding member of the University’s new “Women in Science” chapter.

Pearl I. Young truly proved that the sky is no longer the limit.

Pearl Young

Pearl Young was a pioneer for UND alumnae who have gone on to achieve great distinction in the science and engineering fields. On May 31, 2008, Karen Nyberg became the first UND graduate to go into space. A native of Vining, Minn., Nyberg graduated summa cum laude in 1994 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

David Dodds | Staff Writer