Women of color ace important government work
“I’m a strong advocate for the technical fields. We especially need U.S. citizens with strong engineering and technical backgrounds.” – Melody Bell, Department of Energy
“NAVSEA is hiring just about every type of engineer: electrical, mechanical, chemical, civil, industrial, nuclear and environmental.” – Sharon Smoot, NAVSEA
By Laurel McKee Ranger
Federally Employed Women (FEW) is a membership organization working to end sex discrimination and advance women in federal service. FEW has four primary areas of focus: diversity, compliance, training and legislation.
When the group began forty-one years ago its acronym of “FEW” was very appropriate. Over the years the number of federal women at senior levels and in technical fields has increased somewhat, but there’s still room for improvement, says Sue Webster, president of FEW. Webster is an administrative technical specialist with the Crane (Indiana) division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, an activity of Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA, Washington Navy Yard, DC).
“Women” today definitely includes minority and technical women. Webster notes that in 2007 women of all ethnicities held 59.6 percent of technical jobs in the federal workforce, although they made up just 43.9 percent of the total federal workforce, technical and non-technical combined. In the Senior Executive Service (SES) the proportion of women is 29.1 percent, an increase from 26.2 percent in 2003.
FEW works as a watchdog organization to see that active women’s programs are in place in all federal agencies. “In many cases women are still not getting the training they need to get the promotions they should,” Webster says.
Sharon Smoot manages shipyards and industrial operations at NAVSEA
Since 2006 Sharon Smoot, a member of the SES, has been assistant deputy commander for industrial operations at NAVSEA. NAVSEA engineers, buys and maintains ships, submarines and combat systems for the U.S. Navy. The command has more than 58,000 employees and a budget of nearly $30 billion, 25 percent of the budget for the whole Navy.
Smoot has operational control of the four naval shipyards and is the engineering authority
for naval industrial and facility management. “I’m the operator of the shipyards and I own all industrial processes involved in the planning and execution of ship maintenance,” she explains.
“Nuclear carriers and submarines are our primary business, but we are capable of servicing all the fleet’s ships.”
Smoot has twenty-two direct reports, including shipyard commanders, and 190 staff positions under her control at the Washington Naval Yard HQ, field offices and naval shipyards. Those twenty-two direct reports manage some 27,000 employees.
Besides the immense logistics of the job itself, Smoot’s major challenge is recruiting and retaining a skilled workforce, particularly the engineers. “It’s become increasingly difficult to compete for graduates,” she says. “I spend a lot of time talking about the opportunities we have here. We need just about every type of engineer: electrical, mechanical, chemical, civil, industrial, nuclear and environmental.”
“A passion for what I do”
Smoot received a 2010 Black Engineer of the Year award for professional achievement in government. She has a 1986 BSEE from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and a 1991 MS in engineering management from Old Dominion University (Norfolk, VA).
She began her professional career as an EE with the Department of the Navy in 1986. In
2001 she became nuclear business and strategic planning officer for the Norfolk Naval
Shipyard (Norfolk, VA), leading initiatives to improve naval shipyard business practices. In 2005 she moved up to finance and industrial manager of the Fleet Maintenance Directorate
of the Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, and she took on her assistant deputy commander
job the next year.
“It was quite an honor to be selected,” Smoot says. “Everything that I’ve done in my career has helped prepare me for the challenges of this job.
“I have a lot of passion for what I do. The naval shipyards are here to support the fleet, and we must maintain materiel readiness so the sailors can do what they are trained to do.”
Her journey has been difficult at times. “I’ve been one of the few or even the only African American female in my classes at school and on the job. I’ve had to deal with perceptions of what women should do. I’m African American, female and five feet tall, but I try to let my work speak for me. I’ve done that all my life.”
Diversity and opportunity at NAVSEA
“Diversity plays a huge role at NAVSEA,” says Irma Burden, command deputy for equal employment opportunity and diversity offices at the organization. “Equality of opportunity is taken very seriously at the most senior levels of
the Naval Sea Systems Command. The head commander, vice admiral Kevin McCoy, personally talks with all the commands about their strategic plans for diversity.”
NAVSEA is very active with outreach through affinity groups; it recruits veterans, people with disabilities, racial minorities, women and older workers, among others. It offers onsite and online training and tuition assistance. Affinity groups at the command support women, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans. “We’re currently working on a group for senior employees,” Burden adds.
Despite the current economy, “We haven’t laid anyone off or furloughed anyone, and we’ve taken the opportunity to bring in seasoned employees from other areas. Campus recruiting is active as well,” Burden notes. NAVSEA employs many varieties of engineers and other techies.
ME Jennybelle Echeverri is a project manager at NAVFAC
The Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC, Washington, DC) designs, builds, maintains and modernizes facilities for the Navy and the DOD. Jennybelle Echeverri, a project manager and ME, works for the agency’s capital improvement department. She’s currently working on three child development centers located on naval bases in the national capitol region. They are almost through the design phase and will soon go to construction.
She directs design projects from concept development through preparation of bid documents, and also provides construction support after the contract is awarded. She manages project schedules and budgets and directs architects and engineering contractors.
Echeverri grew up in Caguas, PR, not far from San Juan, and has a 2004 BSME from the University of Gurabo, PR. At school she was chair of the student chapters of SHPE and ASME and a member of SAE and the American Society for Quality. Before she even started her degree she was working fulltime as a quality control manager for Rubber Recycling and Manufacturing (Caguas, PR) and she was a mom as well; her two children are now teenagers.
After graduation Echeverri worked on improving energy efficiency at several pharmaceutical facilities around the island. Then she met NAVFAC at a federal job fair, received an offer and joined the agency in 2008.
“NAVFAC provides excellent experience for professional development. As a new employee
I’ve had a lot of support from senior staff,” Echeverri reports with appreciation. “The more challenging the work, the more you enjoy the success,” she adds.
She’s proud to serve the nation. “Working on the child development centers, I’m helping to support the families of those on active duty. This is a great opportunity!” she says.
Diversity and opportunity at NAVFAC
“Diversity ensures that an organization looks at issues from various perspectives and helps prevent ‘groupthink,’” says Capt H. Rame Hemstreet, commanding officer of NAVFAC Washington and Naval District Washington regional engineer.
“This is a very exciting time to be at NAVFAC,” he adds. “Our booming workload has let us bring many talented folks onboard over the past few years. Our female engineers are diversifying what was once a predominantly male career field, bringing new ideas and perspectives that benefit both our organization and the clients we serve.”
Personnel director Vanessa Wyndham notes that “The contribution of women has been tremendous. We have women in leadership positions in every part of the organization. Our executive officer and second in command, Capt Kathryn Donovan, is a CE, and she’s been a great advocate for bringing women into the command.”
The recession, Wyndham adds, has brought in CEs, EEs, MEs and EnvEs from the private sector. “We have gained very experienced people who can help the command meet its goals. And we’re still looking for more.”
Patricia Lopez Klein: tech director at NRL Blossom Point
As technical director of the Blossom Point facility of the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL, Washington, DC), Patricia Lopez Klein works in command, control, communications, network engineering and management and operations support for satellites. Blossom Point currently supports more than
a dozen spacecraft in many orbits; the NRL does R&D in areas including spacecraft engineering, radar, optical science, IT, chemistry and material science.
Klein started at the NRL in 1982 as an electronic technician, wiring boards in the lab. At first she worked as a contractor through Bendix, but was later hired directly; after she completed her BSEE at the University of Maryland-College Park in 1991 she moved into engineering, working on the flight side. In 2001 she got her MSEE from Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD).
“Now I’m essentially a systems engineer,” she says. “As technology changes we have to modify the facilities to meet the requirements of new projects. I head up the effort to grow the satellite ground communications facility.”
Klein says she started at the lab almost casually, but she’s stayed on for almost thirty years. She didn’t think she wanted to become an engineer, but she did. And she was reluctant to go into management, “But now I love it.”
A satellite launch is a great source of satisfaction, she adds. “You see that plume of smoke and hear the rumble. It’s very exciting.” Klein has received a number of performance awards, including one as part of the management team of the Clementine Mission which focused on mapping the moon.
Although Klein grew up in Bowie, MD, her dad’s family was originally from southern Colorado, “part of the original Hispanic settlers of the West.”
Diversity and opportunity at the NRL
Lori Hill, NRL deputy equal employment opportunity officer, notes that “Our entire workforce shares in the responsibility for making sure the talents and capabilities of individuals are recognized, valued and used in a way that contributes to NRL.” The lab recruits through SWE, NSBE and others.
A long-term training program helps employees pursue further education, and onsite training is also offered. A graduate training program lets techies who are selected continue their work at local universities while putting in a respectable 24-hour week at the lab.
Ginger Kisamore, HR specialist, says scientists and engineers make up 70 percent of the NRL workforce. EEs are the most common, but a wide variety
of other fields are also represented: research physicists and chemists, CS folks, metallurgists, meteorologists, oceanographers, physical scientists, geophysicists and geologists. More than half the scientists and engineers at
the lab have PhD degrees.
Commander Anita L. Lopez commands a NOAA ship
When you’re a ship’s captain, “You have to be on your A-game every day. Spending 220 days a year out to sea is demanding!” declares commander Anita L. Lopez.
As commanding officer of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ship Oscar Elton Sette, Lopez is responsible for maintenance and safe operation of the 224-foot-long ship and the welfare of its crew. The ship is mainly used by the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (Honolulu, HI). It has a permanent crew of twenty-two plus some twenty scientist passengers on every mission.
The NOAA Corps is one of seven U.S. uniformed services. It operates an aircraft and vessel fleet in support of NOAA’s mission: environmental research to conserve and manage coastal and marine resources to meet the country’s economic, social and environmental needs.
Challenging as a captain’s work may be, the female commander of a ship may face even more challenges, Lopez has reason to think. Some are actually amusing, if you have time to be amused. “A while ago the foreman of a shipboard maintenance repair crew wanted to speak
to the captain before they began the work. I was there, and in uniform, but he still wouldn’t believe I was the captain. I had to get my chief engineer to vouch for me,” Lopez says with
a laugh. “We got on famously after that.”
The ship Lopez commands is named after Dr Oscar Elton Sette, a pioneer in the development of fisheries oceanography. “We normally operate in the central and western Pacific,” Lopez explains. “We provide the platform for work like stock assessments, fishery monitoring, life history studies, oceanographic research and monitoring and critical habitat evaluation.”
The ship is equipped to collect fish and crustacean specimens. Last year it went on nine missions, including a ground fish and lobster stock assessment. “We also released captive-raised green sea turtles into the wild, relocated endangered Hawaiian monk seals, conducted a physical and chemical oceanography cruise, cetacean and marine mammal projects, coral reef research, and a two-month-long marine debris removal mission,” Lopez reports.
The debris mission involved hand-cutting and removal of some 120,000 pounds of derelict fishnets and other marine debris,
part of the “great Pacific garbage patch,” from the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
Responsible for success
Commander Lopez is responsible for the successful completion of all the ship’s missions, working with varied groups of leading scientists. She also helps develop junior officers, and in port she works with the port engineer to be sure the ship is mission-ready.
Lopez has a 1989 BS in electronic engineering technology and a 1996 certification in project management, both from the University of Washington (Seattle, WA). She also has a 2008 MS certification in public leadership from the Brookings Institute (Washington, DC). Her first job was with Varian Associates (Palo Alto, CA) as an installation engineer for semiconductor manufacturing in Japan and Korea.
In 1991 she joined the NOAA Corps. “I love the water and I was fascinated with marine science as a child. When I was in high school I joined the Explorer Scouts at the Jet Propulsion Lab and that got me into engineering,” says Lopez.
Lopez grew up in Pasadena, CA. Her father’s ancestors were Yaqui Indians of Arizona who were taken to Mexico as slaves long ago. “We came back to the U.S. a couple of generations later,” she says.
The Sette is equipped with amenities like an onboard gym and 24/7 Internet access, but even so the job can put pressure on family ties. Fortunately, Lopez says, she’s blessed with a sympathetic family. In fact, her husband used to be in NOAA himself. “He understands how much I love my job,” she says.
EE Leslie Taggart manages construction projects for State
Leslie Taggart is a construction engineer at the U.S. Department of State (Washington, DC). “My primary job is to manage day-to-day construction activities,” she says. Her work is part of the State Department’s bureau of overseas building operations, which builds safe and secure embassies, consulates and sometimes residences for U.S. diplomats all over the world.
One of the best aspects of the job is its dynamic nature, says Taggart. At
a moment’s notice her work may take her anywhere in the world. Currently she’s in the Washington, DC home office preparing for her next tour as a construction manager. While in Washington, she’s also a liaison for projects in Tripoli, Libya and Afghanistan.
“With the President’s new effort in Afghanistan, we have a lot going on there,” she notes. “I’m working on the embassy compound which includes a residential complex and an annex.” In Libya she’s managing the construction of an interim embassy.
A native of Huntsville, AL, Taggart began her career in government in 1995, right after high school, as a civil service employee of the DOD. The DOD assigned her to go to college, sending her for her 1999 BSEE from Florida A&M University and a 2004 MBA from Auburn University (Auburn, AL). Whenever school was out she worked at the DOD; she got a taste of foreign weapons analysis, software development, engineering and logistics.
“It’s been a great fit for me”
Taggart eventually found her niche in construction. A mentor suggested that she transfer to the State Department, which she did in 2005. “It’s been a great fit for me,” she says. “This kind of construction work is very complex. We have to build to stringent standards and criteria to ensure that our people are safe and can work efficiently in safe buildings.”
The complexities of building outside the U.S. go even further than security. Materials as required by U.S. building codes may not be available locally. Electric systems are often different and not always reliable. “Our equipment may not be compatible with their systems. Water is a problem. You have to be relentless and committed to getting the job done and looking for solutions in unusual places,” Taggart explains.
The local culture may also be a challenge. “In some countries they don’t see women as engineers. But we represent America and we have to show professionalism at all times.
It was challenging at first,” she says.
Taggart also helps promote the interests and beliefs of her country. “My being a woman engineer of color suggests that possibility to women I meet abroad,” she says.
has spare time at home, Taggart volunteers with the National Urban League as part of its
Black Executive Exchange Program. She talks to college kids here just as she does to the young people she meets abroad, encouraging them to follow their interests in STEM fields.
On and off the job, Taggart clearly loves making a difference.
Lisa M. Scott: CS at the U.S. Army Research Lab
Lisa M. Scott is a computer scientist at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL, Adelphi, MD), the Army’s corporate basic and applied research lab. Scott’s division focuses on computational and information sciences, and her group is involved with networks and wireless communications on the battlefield.
“I develop and design tactical software and tools, so that soldiers can complete their tasks in various environments,” she explains. “I also do basic research for new networking technologies. Developing new technology is very exciting.”
Scott also participates in the ARL’s summer programs for both college and high school students. “Last summer we had two PhD candidates in EE from Prairie View, a traditional HBCU,” she notes.
Scott grew up in Meridian, MS and has a 2000 BSCS and a 2003 MSCS from Jackson State University (Jackson, MS). While at school she was an intern at IBM in Austin, TX and at Lawrence Livermore National Labs (Livermore, CA). She met up with ARL at a career fair. Just a few months after she started there, she was doing field experiments. “I worked with soldiers at Fort Benning, GA. It was very challenging but very interesting,” she recalls.
When Scott started she was in awe of all the PhDs and world-renowned scientists at the lab.
“I knew I could get so much from them, and they thought I brought something to the table as well! The atmosphere was very welcoming and receptive,” she says. “We are all here for the soldiers. They put themselves in harm’s way and anything we can do for them is rewarding.”
In her spare time Scott volunteers as part of the military care ministry at her church. “I try to get involved in the soldiers’ lives on a more personal basis. We want to help them and their families.”
Lisa Courts: info assurance at the National Geospatial-Intel Agency
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA, Bethesda, MD) provides data used in military navigation systems, and Lisa Courts is information assurance lead at the agency. “I am responsible for certifying that all our assets meet the security requirements set by the agency,” she explains. “That involves documentation and risk assessment for each system to determine the necessary security measures.”
It can be a tricky task, balancing risk, security and usability. “You can’t harden the systems too much, but you do have to continually measure them and make sure there’s no vulnerability before they’re connected to a network,” Courts explains. Information assurance managers from her team are placed around the world.
Courts grew up in Buffalo, NY. She worked two jobs during college, and graduated from the Bryant & Stratton Business Institute (Buffalo, NY) in 1991 with a major in computer information management. She went on to join the Air Force as an administrative assistant, and continued her studies at St Leo’s University, Excelsior College and George Washington University. In eleven years with the Air Force she was cross-trained in communications, and became an information assurance manager. From the beginning, “When helpdesk folks weren’t available I had to help, and that led to training opportunities,” she says.
In 2003 Courts joined NGA as an information assurance officer through SAIC (McLean, VA), a science, engineering and technology company. The next year NGA hired her fulltime as branch chief for the information assurance management division. She’s the first minority female to hold the position.
It took hard work for her to get where she is today. “I volunteered for my first information assurance job back in 1995, when the field didn’t look very exciting,” she says; “I worked extremely hard to prove myself as a woman in IT. But the work paid off: we were the first agency to achieve the DOD standard for information security management and we’re still leading the way.”
Courts points out that women of color are still a small percentage of the IT community. “But when I moved to NGA I was so excited. The leadership is diverse here, and I feel I’m helping other women climb the leadership ladder at NGA and in the broader intelligence community. I’m definitely making my voice heard!”
Ayanna S. Paul of the U.S. Secret Service
The Secret Service (Washington, DC) is well known for protecting the president and visiting heads of state. The agency is also involved in protecting the financial systems and currency of the U.S., and investigating bank and credit card fraud, money laundering and identity theft.
Most of Ayanna S. Paul’s work is done behind the scenes at HQ, where she works as an IT specialist in the application architecture branch. “I support the apps the agents and other Secret Service personnel use to do their jobs,” she says.
Paul is the intranet manager, responsible for functional and content maintenance. She plans, designs, develops and implements customized intranet apps, and Web pages for both the intranet and Internet websites.
She graduated from Bowie State University (Bowie, MD) in 2002 with a BS in computer technology, and completed an MS in MIS there in 2006. But her career with the Secret Service actually began years before, when she started as an administrative assistant in 1997 during her senior year in high school in Largo, MD.
“I wanted a part-time schedule and I looked around at various government agencies,” she remembers. “The Secret Service came to our school with a ‘stay in school’ program and I started working for them. Then I decided to go to college locally and stay on with my job because I enjoyed it, and the money I earned helped with college expenses and a car.”
She started in business admin at college, but once she discovered Web apps she quickly changed to computer tech. “I wanted to explore the technology and learn about the infrastructure behind the Web,” she says.
Paul has had some very interesting assignments with the Secret Service. She was an assistant coordinator for a presidential debate in Oxford, MS in 2008, and she’s been applications lead for United Nations General Assemblies, G-20 Summits, a Republican and a Democratic national convention, and the Presidential inaugurations in 2001 and 2009.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities to demonstrate my skills. When you do that, they don’t look at your age, gender or color. The Secret Service definitely looks at the quality and performance of your work,” she says with pride.
Melody Bell: management at the Department of Energy
The Department of Energy (DOE, Washington, DC) was created in 1977, but traces its roots to the Manhattan Project that created the first atomic bombs during World War II. Today it has several functions, including the search for new energy sources, energy efficiency, renewable and sustainable energy and environmental cleanup. It’s also involved in national security through development and maintenance of nuclear weapons.
Melody Bell, with four direct reports, is deputy assistant secretary for business administration
in the DOE’s energy efficiency and renewable energy program. Her office handles all business products and functions for a variety of programs, and she’s ultimately responsible for developing the budget, data analysis and evaluation of performance metrics, as well as the IT shop, facilities and infrastructure, HR and support service contracting, budget execution and project management systems.
Bell has a 1984 BS in engineering from the Air Force Academy (Colorado Springs, CO) and
a 1987 MBA from Pepperdine University (Malibu, CA). In 1997 she completed an MS in environmental science engineering from the Colorado School of Mines. She served in the Air Force from 1984 to 1992 and worked in environmental management on an Air Force base for her last assignment.
In 1992 she took her on-base environmental experience to the DOE as an environmental cleanup project engineer in Rocky Flats, CO. By 2000 Bell had moved into national security, dealing with procurement and strategic planning in Las Vegas, NV in association with the Nevada test site.
A move to DOE’s Washington HQ in 2005 gave her experience with policy, budget, procurement, IT and project management. Then she joined the energy side of the agency and reached her present job last year. With the current administration’s focus on clean and renewable energy, she’s in an especially exciting, growing area.
Bell entered the Air Force Academy when the first class of women was just graduating, and it still wasn’t an easy time there for women. “But I persevered,” she says. “Now I hope I’m a role model for my own kids and others in the community.”
She hopes many of the kids she influences will follow in her footsteps. “I’m a strong advocate for the technical fields,” she says. “To work in most U.S. government jobs you have to be a citizen, so we especially need U.S. citizens with strong engineering and technical backgrounds.”
EE Gabriela Valdivia: protection engineer at Bonneville
Gabriela Valdivia is an EE with Bonneville Power Administration (BPA, Portland, OR). She works in Vancouver, WA in the protective relay group, responsible for designing relay and control systems that detect problems in high-voltage transmission equipment.
Her latest project is her largest to date, lasting two years and involving two major substations. “We’re replacing most of the relays so it’s almost like building a new relay house,” she says. In fact it’s even more complicated, “because it requires retrofitting.”
Valdivia’s group makes sure the high voltage equipment is protected. “Intelligent” digital relays detect a fault or failure and isolate the affected devices to prevent a domino effect where customers lose power over a wide area.
Valdivia was born in the U.S. to parents who came from Guadalajara, Mexico. Her 2006 BSEE is from Walla Walla College (College Place, WA). She was a student intern at BPA, and started fulltime right after graduation. After work she’s active with the Bonneville student program and helps out at career fairs.
Valdivia is pleased with the relationships she’s built on the job. “If you respect the people who help you, you gain their friendship,” she says.
FEW looks forward
Back at FEW, president Webster is looking forward to the group’s national training program in New Orleans, LA, this July 12 through 16. The group has been raising money for schools in the neglected Ninth District of New Orleans, an area heavily impacted by Hurricane Katrina, she explains.
“We’re hoping Michelle Obama can be there to open the conference and present the checks.”
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