The first woman to be selected by the Association for Advancement of Invention and Innovations as the National Inventor of the Year, Barbara Askins was a chemist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
Staring off as a teacher, Askins made the decision to pursue a career as a chemist once her children had started school. Earning bachelors and master’s degrees in chemistry she was hired by NASA in 1975. She was tasked with creating a new method for developing astronomical and geological images taken by researchers. These images were taken from high above the Earth and held lots of information but could be fuzzy and lacked definition. Askins method was based on autoradiography which uses nuclear emulsions produced by the pattern of decay emission from a distribution of a radioactive substance, in her case thiourea labelled with a radioisotope of Sulphur.
In her paper, published in 1978, entitled “Method of Obtaining Intensified Image from Developed Photographic Films and Plates,” she introduced her patented process to the world. Not only did this process work for enhancing negatives before they were developed into prints, it also was found to be very successful in enhancing images after the pictures had been developed. NASA would use her work to gather data from underexposed space images–such as those from deep space–as well as those highlighting the geology of other celestial objects in our solar system.
But the influence of her work didn’t stop there. It found its way into improvements in the medical community as well. It was discovered that x-rays that were 96 percent underexposed could still be read after Askins’s process had been used, meaning that doctors could use much lower doses of radiation and still get usable images, greatly decreasing the amount of radiation a patient would be exposed to during x-rays. Subsequently it was discovered that her method could be used to enhance and improve the restoration of antique photographs.
Askins holds memberships in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Future Society, the Sigma Xi honorary research society, and the American Chemical Society.
Written by Angela Goad