By Sonia Paul
By the time she was in high school, Nancy K. Welker ’63 knew she wanted to pursue physics. Neither chemistry nor biology interested her as much, and, a tinkerer at heart, she was fascinated by how physics seemed to be involved with absolutely everything in life.
As she reflected on a nearly 55-year career at the National Security Agency — and her recent induction into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame — she credited a significant part of her pioneering success in a male-dominated field to her decision to attend Mount Holyoke College.
“[It] turned out to be much more important than I even realized,” Welker said of her time at Mount Holyoke. “I would say that a women’s college has two purposes. One is to give you a very good education. … And the second is to convince you you can do anything you set your mind to. And I don't think that all coed schools would do that for you.”
“At Mount Holyoke College, I was simply a physics student, not a female physics student,” she said, underscoring that if she had attended a traditional university, she would have likely been the only woman in nearly every one of her classes — an experience she learned to live with once she entered the working world but didn’t experience as an undergraduate.
There were only a few physics majors during her time at Mount Holyoke, she recalled, and the sexism that still pervades many industries became obvious to her only when she stepped outside the College. She vividly recalls an experience from the summer between her second and third years, for example, when she had decided to spend the summer with her roommate as they both enrolled in summer classes at a large Southwestern university in the roommate’s home state. When it came time for Welker to get her registration card approved by the physics department, the registrar made clear his judgment of her gender.
“He looked at me, and he looked at the card,” Welker recalled. “He looked at me again, and I think this is a direct quote. He said, ‘Well, I wouldn't normally sign this because you're a woman. But since you're only here for the summer, I'll go ahead and sign.’ And I said, ‘Oh my.’ It certainly put a little red light in the background that said, ‘Watch out for this kind of thing.’”
It was then that Welker realized how profound her decision to attend Mount Holyoke was, although the sexism — much more blatant in the 1960s than it is now — didn’t necessarily stop. As a fourth-year student browsing different opportunities at the college placement center where recruiters would provide literature about their companies and interview students, she realized that many companies wanted to hire women for jobs specifically tailored for women instead of just hiring them to do, in her case, a job in physics.
That didn’t sit well with Welker, who, at the time, had already been accepted into a master’s degree program to pursue further studies in physics. But a chance encounter with a representative of the NSA changed her entire direction.
Unlike private companies, the government couldn’t recruit her or deny her a job because of her gender — discrimination on the basis of race or gender was illegal even then, she said. As Welker started to explain to the representative that she might consider the job after graduate school, he stopped her in her tracks.
“And he says, ‘Oh, don't do that. Come with us now,’” Welker remembered. “‘And we'll send you through a master’s degree, pay full fare. And maybe even a Ph.D.’ And I thought, ‘Well, that sounds pretty good.’”
She laughs when she thinks about it now, she said, because of the irony of the situation — that the discrimination that dissuaded her from other jobs and the fact that the government had to give an equal opportunity to every person who applied landed her a job where she would stay for decades. And she was fully supported financially for her advanced degrees, which she knew she needed to call herself a physicist.
The rest is history. Welker arrived at the NSA in September 1963 and worked there until her retirement in 2018. Her male colleagues were supportive of her work and presence, and not only did she earn an M.S. and Ph.D. in physics from American University, but she also became a leader in several aspects of solid-state physics. Welker’s accolades are seemingly endless: She helped create and managed the NSA’s Microelectronics Research Laboratory and Special Processing Laboratory, which manufactured integrated circuits for government use. After holding several key management positions, she also became the first woman appointed as chief of the research and development group. She has established a reputation as a nationally recognized expert in superconducting electronics, and her groundbreaking research in superconducting phenomena and integrated circuit manufacturing helped unleash the development of a new generation of more powerful computers.
Welker has also served as a mentor to other women interested in STEM, guiding them through the process of staying motivated in a field — not to mention society — that requires a woman to have a thick skin. No one should tolerate sexual harassment, she said, but she advises women to not be turned off by slights or microaggressions that are sometimes ultimately not worth the battle.
“Everything is not a confrontation. … You have to draw your own line determining where it will fall and not violate your personal principles. As long as it does not violate your personal principles, sometimes you just have to tough it out.”
Welker certainly did, all with aplomb. She was taken aback when she was nominated for — and inducted into — the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame and is now back at work for the NSA for a couple of days a week.
“I like to keep my hand in,” she says. “I enjoy the science, and I enjoy the people.”