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Right on Target with Math: An Interview with Mrs. Tina Gemmill

posted Jul 8, 2010, 6:55 PM by Glenna Buford   [ updated Jul 8, 2010, 7:02 PM by AWM Web Editor ]

2002 AWM Essay Contest:
Honorable Mention in Grades 6-8 Category

By Jonathan Lesher

Mission: At 0600 hours, launch five Tomahawks against hostile targets deep in the heart of Iraq....

Imagine yourself upon the deck of the USS Ramage ready to fire five Tomahawks into Iraq. You receive news that there is a raging tempest with the potential to disrupt your Tomahawks’ intended flight paths. You begin to wonder whether or not to launch in this weather....

* * * * *

On the tranquil shores of the Potomac River lies the lazy town of Dahlgren, Virginia. It is in this peaceful setting where you can locate Tina Gemmill, mathematician.

On a cool autumn morning, I paid a visit to Mrs. Gemmill. She met me in the secured building’s lobby. Mrs. Gemmill had to sign me in on the register. Once I was registered, I received a badge that would let me into the main section of the building. To get in, I had to place the backside of the pass in front of a scanner.

On the way to Mrs. Gemmill’s office, one passer-by joked, "so, they’re recruiting them young now, are they?" I also heard and glimpsed various conferences taking place in the numerous hallways. I eventually arrived at my destination: Mrs. Gemmill’s spacious office. Her desk was conveniently placed in a corner of the room beside a computer. By the right wall, there was a rectangular, wood-grained table with one red, cushioned chair on each side.

From the very start, I could tell Mrs. Gemmill had a very loving and good-natured demeanor. She had graying hair, glasses, and a shirt with alternating orange, white, green, and blue vertical stripes.

After we sat down, she told me about her line of work. She is a mathematician and works for Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division Laboratory’s K61, Advanced Concepts Branch. She is part of a team that designs simulations of ship motion, interfaces, and missile launches. The team tries to figure out what would happen to a launching missile if the ship it was on were pitching back and forth through a violent storm. They also study a missile’s intended flight path. The skills Mrs. Gemmill uses most while working on these simulations are software engineering, hardware design, and physics.

The missile Mrs. Gemmill simulates is the Tomahawk. The Tomahawk is named after the war club used by Native Americans that probably lived in places like Dahlgren. It is an all-weather submarine or ship-launched land-attack cruise missile. A Tomahawk is used to clear out an enemy’s defenses to open up a path for our pilots.

The missile is also used to destroy high-value targets such as weapons storage and electrical generating facilities. The US Navy launched a lot of them from cruisers, submarines, and destroyers like Ramage against such targets in Iraq during Desert Storm.

Mrs. Gemmill’s father had a Ph.D. in Chemistry. All of her five brothers also have careers that involve mathematics. One is an actuary, another a mathematician, another an accountant, another a geologist, and the last is a store manager. She also has one sister who is a musician and computer scientist. Her mother had a major in English. Some of her interests and hobbies are sports (tennis, biking, swimming, and skiing) and music (orchestra -- French horn).

Mrs. Gemmill’s motivation to enlist in this profession was found in the subjects of math, physics, and chemistry. They were always of interest to her. They were also easy for her to do, and she received her best grades in mathematics. She graduated from Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, VA, with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics. When Mrs. Gemmill graduated, she went directly into jobs within the field of mathematics. If she had to choose another career, she would have selected electrical engineering. The only other careers she considered were teaching physical education or music.

When she first accepted her job in 1967, there were very few women in mathematics and science. Most women with degrees in math were teachers. By 1980, there were many more women being hired for jobs in the field of mathematics thanks to equal employment opportunities. Today there are almost as many women in mathematics as men. While working at Dahlgren, she did graduate work in computer science and engineering.

Mrs. Gemmill is often asked to give advice to students looking for opportunities in the mathematical sciences. She recommends getting a general education first with as many background courses as possible. Also, she says, try to include fields related to math such as chemistry, biology, or physics. Finally, don’t specialize until graduate school because you never know what may interest you or be available later on.

After we talked in her office, she took me for a tour of the lab. To get to the lab, we had to walk through a hallway, down a flight of stairs, and around a corner. Mrs. Gemmill then had to wave her badge in front of a scanner to unlock the door to the computer lab. Inside the lab were more than twenty large and impressive computers. They looked like enormous VCRs with countless cords and wires extending from the back. These computers were used to simulate actual shipboard conditions.

After the tour, Mrs. Gemmill said goodbye to me in the lobby. I now realize just how important mathematics can be. It’s reassuring to know that intelligent and dedicated women like Mrs. Gemmill are helping to keep our country safe.

About the author: Jonathan Lesher is a sixth grader at Dahlgren School in Virginia, a school operated by the Department of Defense Education Activity. He is currently in the advanced math group. He was born in San Diego, California and has lived in Atsugi, Japan; Yokosuka, Japan; Omaha, Nebraska; Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Dahlgren, Virginia. He likes math because it’s straightforward and easy for him. He enjoys hands-on activities, but hands-on activities wouldn’t really work with Tomahawk missiles! Jonathan finds pleasure in solving geometric problems such as figuring out the area of triangles or the circumference of circles. His favorite problems, however, involve engineering problems. It should come as no surprise that he is looking forward to a career in electrical engineering.