Fueled by a love for science, mathematics, and language, Helen Elizabeth Voegele Gourley spent seven decades as a, scientist, engineer, physicist, lecturer, and educator. From 1971 until her passing in 2021, she dedicated herself to System Sciences Group in San Francisco, where, in the role of chief optical scientist of her own consulting firm, she focused her expert skills on designing and analyzing optics relating to illumination for medical, military, and manufacturing instruments. In an industry largely occupied and run by men, Helen — through her hard work, tenacity, and knowledge — earned a place at the table for women in science.
Born and raised in Rochester, New York, Helen grew up devouring books and music — both of which would guide her throughout her life. Helen graduated as valedictorian of John Marshall High School class of 1949, winning a Bausch & Lomb Science Award and Scholarship. She attended the University of Rochester, where she focused her studies on physics and optics while also performing as a singer. A remarkable student, she graduated with honors in 1953, equipped with a Bachelor of Science in physics and an aspiration to enter that field.
Helen started as a research physicist at the University of California Medical Center from 1953 to 1955 and then became a project engineer at Beckman Instruments from 1955 to 1960. Following these positions, Helen excelled as a trusted senior scientist at Nuclear Research Instruments in Berkeley from 1960 to 1965, during which time she designed the optical parts of image measuring systems utilized by the military for analyzing photographic surveillance photos. In addition, Helen enrolled in numerous specialized courses at UC Berkeley, learning a range of technical subjects from lens design to electrical engineering.
In 1965, Helen joined Quantic Industries, an aerospace company responsible for creating navigation devices for satellites, as a program manager. There, she designed optical elements for their products, tested systems, and even worked closely with NASA and Lockheed Martin — the prime builder of spacecraft and systems — on testing and evaluation before and during launches. Helen founded her consulting company, System Sciences Group, where she worked on special-purpose design and research for mainly classified or confidential projects consulting for such companies as General Electric Space Systems Division, Xerox Research, ILC Corporation, and NASA.
One of Helen’s projects while consulting for ILC Corporation was designing lights for the cargo bay of the space shuttle. These lights were flown on the space shuttle Columbia and subsequent space shuttle flights. Additionally, she designed lighting for the popular 1983 film, “War Games,” and collaborated with a colleague, Dr. Darrell Mathis, writing software for ray tracing, and designing energy-efficient industrial tools.
Outside of her primary endeavors, Helen also served as a mentor to numerous people, especially women, for whom she instilled great passion in the sciences. She held seminars with “Expanding Your Horizons,” a yearly conference for middle school girls to learn about career opportunities in math and science, presented laser workshops for high school girls for decades, and was active as the director of a national advisory group for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, located within the Rochester Institute of Technology. In addition, she contributed to the San Francisco Orchid Society, the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and was the president of the Optical Society of Northern California from 1989 to 1990. Though a lifelong lover of music, she started playing the harp at 60 years old, and played the instrument in churches, stage plays, and annually for the San Francisco Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women at the Olympic Club.
As a testament to her accomplishments, she was presented with a President’s Award by the International Society for Optical Engineering in 1964, and was later honored as Member of the Year by the American Harp Society in 2007. An affiliate of many groups, she was also a proud member of the National Speakers Bureau, American Physical Society, Optical Society of Northern California, Optical Society of America, International Society for Optical Engineering, and a San Francisco Emergency Response Team. As a lover of gardening, and grower of orchids, she also belonged to the San Francisco Orchid Society.
Helen Elizabeth Voegele Gourley — the wife of Darrell for more than 47 years, mother to Rebecca and, a “second mother” to Brandon — passed away on March 17, 2021.