Agnes Scott College

Mary Pensworth Reagor

Mary Reagor
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October 1, 1945 -


Mary Pensworth Reagor was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. After graduating from Oak Ridge (TN) High School, she entered Agnes Scott College in the fall of 1963, where she majored in mathematics. She went on to do graduate work in mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin, earning a Masters degree in 1969. After working at General Dynamics (now Lockheed Martin) as a Senior Aerospace Engineer, where she was the first woman engineer chosen to complete the company sponsored Management Training Seminar, she returned to Texas Christian University to earn a Ph.D. in 1983 with a dissertation entitled "A fuzzy version of Tietze's extension theorem" [Abstract.] Reagor taught mathematics and computer information systems at Weatherford College from 1983 to 1989 before returning to work as an engineer at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. She has received several awards at Lockheed and currently serves as a Lockheed Martin Technical Fellow for Mathematical Algorithms. In 2005, Reagor received the Outstanding Achievement Award from the Women in Aerospace organization for "her pioneering work in the development of fuzzy logic applications resulting in extremely versatile, widely-applicable data-mining and modeling tools for complex multivariate systems." In 2007 she received the Outstanding Alumnae Distinguished Career Award from the Agnes Scott College Alumnae Association.

The following article by Lisa Ashmore is reprinted with permission from the Spring/Summer 2003 issue of Agnes Scott The Magazine.


Math is a presence Mary Pensworth Reagor '67 examines in her dreams. She finds it a mystery and a veil, with beauty in its underlying structure.

She first perceived beauty in proofs while a graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin. "After you memorize about a hundred of them, you start to see familiar patterns." Reagor began recognizing the "fingerprints" of earlier mathematicians woven into proofs done years later by others. Clever, elegant and useful techniques are often reused later and, like a secret signature, signal contributions of those earlier mathematicians.

Reagor is exactly the mathematician and scientist her doctorate from Texas Christian University and 21 years at Lockheed Martin say she is: One of her fuzzy logic applications for the aerospace giant appears to hold multi-layered potential for solving problems as diverse as understanding breast cancer patterns to helping fighter pilots avoid crashes, especially under fire or stress. The military calls the latter "ground-collision avoidance." Early in her career, however, Reagor took a three-year leave of absence from the industry to raise her two daughters that turned into a 15-year hiatus. For eight years, she taught math and computer science at Weatherford College, and she and her husband, a graduate of Georgia Institute of Technology, continue to tutor high school and college students.

But when General Dynamics, now Lockheed Martin, rolled out the F-16 fighter aircraft in the '70s, Reagor was there. And when the Fort Worth plant underwent a drastic decline (her company cut its workforce from about 24,000 to 6,000) she taught herself a computer simulation language in order to do her own coding. Her first programming job was a simulation filling seven large boxes of punched cards, the only way to input information into the computers.

Reagor's Ph.D. extended concepts of a branch of mathematics called topology, a study of shapes, using a generalization technique called fuzzy logic. Fuzzy logic, contrary to what the name seems to imply, is quite exact and attaches a precise mathematical meaning to the many shades of gray between the black and white of traditional "true or false" logic. It enables words like "faster" and "almost", for example, to be exactly understood by a computer.

Reagor's patented discovery is derived from concepts related to fuzzy logic. Her invention is a computer software technique that creates a nonlinear model for a large set of data with multiple influences. Her software rapidly creates a model to which a person can present values of the influences that were not in the original set and receive a reasonable value for a response. The technique builds a model whether the user knows how to model the data or not. A version of the technique is commercially available as DATASCAPE and can be found on the Web.

"The resulting code is small, and it executes very quickly," she says, making it perfect for an aircraft flight system. On-board computers must evaluate many different parameters many times per second, while minimizing memory and processor resources. Reagor's software model can take sensor values of pitch, yaw, roll, altitude and speed of an aircraft with low ground visibility or a distracted pilot and can calculate whether the plane is maneuvering dangerously low. This frees the pilot to concentrate on maneuvers, while the model monitors flight parameters and remains ready to sound a warning to "pull up" in time to prevent a crash.

Invented with Lockheed Martin research grant funds, Reagor describes this innovation as a once-in-a-lifetime discovery, truly an "aha!" moment in her research. However, getting to this "aha" moment wasn't always easy for Reagor, the girl who got called on a lot during high school in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

"When you're a smart, shy girl who's right a lot in high school, that typically means you're putting down a lot of guys," says Reagor. "That was a socially difficult position." A women's college eliminated that unease, and small classes (especially in mathematics in the '60s) meant she was not only allowed to be right, she was expected to be. When she moved to the University of Texas at Austin to pursue her master's, she landed in classes of 50 where she was often the only woman.

"There were times when I felt really inadequate - that I was way under-prepared," she says. But her study skills and the habit of being ready for a small class where she couldn't hide served Reagor well.

Reagor claims her weakness in spelling confidence and a bit of chauvinism dissuaded her from her dream of being a physician, as were her two uncles-one of whom told her "Women don't make good doctors."

After taking a biology genus and species tests, she soon discovered her biology professor at Agnes Scott was a stickler for spelling. Realizing that in a small department she'd often face this predicament, she switched her major to mathematics.

Unforeseen to Reagor at the time, that switch would put her in the middle of world events. Lockheed Martin is a major U.S. defense contractor. While Reagor cannot discuss the details, her work is a lesson in how abstract mathematics can influence the practical world of defending the nation and enhancing military effectiveness.

"It's only impossible until it's not," is a phrase Reagor likes, and she posts quotes around her desk to inspire her. As she reads them off, many center on the idea of conquering the impossible.

Reagor's contribution to Lockheed is not unnoticed. Last year, she was the only woman among 23 Lockhead Martin Aeronautics Company employees in all three company locations chosen for two-year appointments as technical fellows in a new program instituted to preserve and to pass on the brain trust of its senior scientists. "Within 10 years, all of us pretty much will have reached retirement," says Reagor, who was cited for her expertise in mathematical algorithms.

The program is designed to ensure that the enterprise maintains a pre-eminent position in aerospace technology through focused utilization of its top technical talent. It is also a way of recognizing the value of the technical career path.

In 1997 she received a Stellar Performance Award for Technical Excellence from Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, a company currently of about 20,000 in a corporation of 125,000. Later that year she received the corporation's NOVA Award for Technical Excellence, the highest recognition for individual or team achievements. With selection standards very high, 50 NOVA awards are granted each year to individuals and teams from across the corporation. Chosen for her innovations in the development of software applications, Reagor's award was in the technical excellence category for internationally recognized innovation in the development of fuzzy logic software applications.

"There are a lot of smart people out here - the intellectual challenge is very great," says Reagor. "There is constant competition, and it's an environment where you're intellectually stressed and challenged."

And on a night when an answer has eluded her-during a day full of presentations, shuttling between labs and trying to beat the Fort Worth traffic-a dream will present it. And that is beautiful.

Lisa Ashmore is a freelance writer who also edits DesignIntelligence, a monthly for architects, designers and engineers.

References

  1. Agnes Scott College Spotlight" on Mary Pensworth Reagor
  2. MathSciNet [subscription required]
  3. Author Profile at zbMath
  4. Mathematics Genealogy Project

Photo Credit: Photographs are used with permission of Agnes Scott College