Stars of STEM: A career Q&A with our 2017 BEYA honorees
Eight Leidos employees will be recognized at the 31st Annual Black Engineer of the Year (BEYA) STEM Conference in Washington, D.C. this week. The conference is an annual opportunity for professional training and networking with some of the top engineering employers, as well as a career fair for students seeking professions in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Clockwise from top are Project Manager/Engineer Danielle Grant, Technology Manager & IT Infrastructure Lead Derrick Pledger, Senior Scientist Dr. Beverly Thompson, Engineering Manager Raymond Okeke, Distribution Engineer Kevin Mutisya, Network Systems Engineer Justin Cox, Lead Systems Engineer & Technical Lead Eryca Roberts, and Vice President for Civil Health Program Management Ed Benjamin. Grant and Benjamin are being recognized as Dr. John Brooks Slaughter Legacy Awardees while Pledger, Thompson, Okeke, Mutisya, Cox and Roberts are all Modern-Day Technology Leader Awardees.
When did you know you wanted to pursue a STEM career?
- Derrick: During a college internship at Cleveland Medical Devices, a biomedical device manufacturer that develops home monitoring solutions for patients with sleep apnea. I worked as an assistant to the CEO and also completed rotational assignments with mechanical engineers that exposed me to different facets of engineering (design, testing, etc.).
- Danielle: In high school I took a questionnaire that evaluated and informed students of the career types that best suited them based on an academics and interests. My test results said that I should pursue aerospace engineering. This was the first time that I had ever heard of such a discipline. After researching the AE industry, I agreed with the conclusion of the test. I had always loved math and physics, solving all types of problems, and following logical flows of thought.
- Kevin: This happened in high school. Math was always my strong suit, so when I was having the discussion with various people about what I was going to major in college, STEM was a strong consideration.
- Eryca: I think around 9th grade I knew I wanted to be an engineer. Growing up I always thought I would become a pediatrician, but my love for math got me involved in lots of summer programs that introduced me to engineering. I also attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, which was a science and engineering high school that influenced me to pursue engineering in college.
- Raymond: I have known since I was about 4 or 5 years old that I was going pursue a STEM career. I have heard numerous stories from my parents about me dismantling my electronic toys and then reassembling them shortly after. It was pretty evident as I developed in my early years that I had a strong passion and affinity for electronics, which ultimately drew me into engineering. This passion led me to enroll in relevant courses in high school which prepared me for a STEM career.
- Ed: My parents knew from a very early age that I was destined for STEM based on how I observed and tried to understand the world around me (sometimes in destructive ways). I have always loved math and science, and have been an analytical problem-solver. As far as I remember, I knew that a STEM career, specifically engineering, was for me.
- Justin: When I was in middle school I wanted to be an architect when I grew up. I loved the idea of designing buildings and places that people would live in. The idea of creating something from scratch in my mind and then making an “engineering” design that could support it was fascinating to me.
Who or what is the biggest influence on your career?
- Derrick: One of the most notable influences on my career is the appreciation for members of the military who volunteer to be in harm’s way to protect this great nation. I enjoy the fact that I can contribute to projects designed to equip service members with the tools they need to accomplish their missions.
- Danielle: My husband has been the biggest influence in my career. He has always believed in me and pushed me to take chances. Seeing him accomplish his goals gave me the feeling that “I can do it too.”
- Kevin: I would say Elon Musk. He is a fellow South African who moved to the United States, graduated in the STEM field and moved on to create marvelous inventions in the renewable energy field and space travel.
- Eryca: My biggest influence on my STEM career was my mom. As a math teacher, she contributed greatly to my love of math and solving problems. I have been exposed to various engineering fields at camps and in my household, so finding solutions and developing innovative ideas hold a huge place in my heart.
- Ed: Lots of people influenced me along the way. So many great (and not-so-great) teachers who accelerated my trajectory into STEM. One particular teacher in 8th grade opened my eyes to how well I could perform by holding me accountable and refusing to accept sub-par work from me. Once I started working, I have been influenced by others who contributed ideas, approaches and simply had trust in me. Overall though, I will call my father and mother my biggest influences. They gave me the values of strong work ethic, always doing what is morally and ethically right, and working collaboratively with others.
- Justin: I think the biggest influence on my STEM career, and my career and life in general, would have to be my parents. They were always my biggest supporters and pushed me to want to do great things. This is part of the reason, I believe, why I am so ambitious and why I believe that being just good isn’t good enough. They taught me that not only believing in myself matters, but that if I truly wanted something, I would have to focus on it and work hard to achieve it. While someone can give you an opportunity, it’s up to you to make the most of it.
What advice do you have for young people interested in becoming STEM professionals?
- Derrick: Change is one of the few things that we can all agree is a constant. When you elect to pursue a STEM career, the great thing is that you are afforded the opportunity to both participate in as well as contribute to the evolution of technologies, which in many cases, improve the human condition. Additionally, the employment outlook for STEM careers over the coming decades is incredibly promising.
- Danielle: Have confidence in your ability, but still enough flexibility to learn from others. Do not forget to apply common sense when solving a problem. Sometimes we get so focused on the math and science that we don’t stop to think about if it makes sense from a logical standpoint.
- Kevin: There is no shortcut to hard work. Be obsessed.
- Eryca: The key is to always keep a “you can do anything and never quit” attitude. Just like Thomas Edison, who said he found 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb before finding the right way. If you want to be an engineer, it isn’t always easy, but you can do it. You have to develop the right study habits and apply yourself to learn. Study and learn the basics with science and math classes and don’t forget communication skills.
- Beverly: I think finding role models working in the STEM field is invaluable. For girls, introducing them early on to women role models in STEM has proven to be especially important.
- Ed: Have fun. Stick with it. Don’t be intimidated, and don’t be afraid to take on new challenges. You don’t have to be the top student to be in STEM; think of STEM more as something we succeed in together rather than a competitive enterprise.
- Justin: The best advice I could give is to be deliberate about what you want in your life and career. I think too many young people believe that there will always be time to get serious about their future and/or the things they want out of life. And while generally that is true, thinking about the future and making plans can only help you achieve what you want. Also, that life and a STEM career more specifically, is hard work. You have to put the time in and never be satisfied with where you are. Always push to be greater and greater, and improve yourself.
Why is it important to build STEM skills at a young age and how can we assist and encourage those efforts? Are there activities/organizations you participate in or recommend?
- Derrick: I affirm that building foundational STEM skills at a young age is very important, nevertheless, the most critical aspect in my view is simply exposure. Oftentimes America’s youth, especially those who happen to be less fortunate, are not provided the opportunity to gain meaningful exposure to STEM activities. I believe the first step is to develop a mechanism for government, private industry, and our educational institutions to work together to provide relevant incentives to public/private organizations that engage youth via STEM-related programs.
- Danielle: Getting young people involved in STEM activities opens the door to more opportunities. It gives them a chance to apply arithmetic to real-world problems, which helps keep them interested in learning more advanced STEM skills. An organization that I recommend is Civil Air Patrol (CAP) for cadets. Cadets not only receive training in aircraft operations and maintenance, but they learn military-type discipline.
- Kevin: STEM skills are important for innovation, design, maintenance of existing design, problem resolution and organization, all of which are transferrable skills. I participated in and would recommend FIRST Robotics.
- Eryca: It’s important to build STEM skills at a young age, because it sets the foundation for kids to strive to work hard while doing something they come to love. Most STEM programs for younger kids are hands-on activities that are teaching them skills without them even realizing it. When I was in middle school, I went to summer programs that were fun while also teaching me how to think. Johns Hopkins APL still has the Math Engineering Science Achievement (MESA) program that I am happy to say I was a part of and is a big reason I wanted to do engineering.
- Beverly: In an article on how to get more African American girls in tech, Ruchika Tulshyan writes: “To change future ratios, it's necessary for tech employers to actively recruit more women of color today. A role model currently working in technology is more likely to influence girls to consider a career in tech.” We assist and encourage these efforts by giving young girls opportunities to meet women in STEM and hear their stories.
One organization that does a great job at this is TechBridge Girls, which “inspires girls to discover a passion for technology, science, and engineering through hands-on learning. Another organization that empowers young girls is Career Girls, a non-profit whose board I joined in 2013. Career Girls showcases videos of diverse women role models sharing career and educational advice to inspire young girls, specifically in the 7-14 age range, to expand their horizons, improve their academic performance, and dream big about their futures. Today, the organization has 8,000 of these videos, the largest collection of its kind on the internet.
Any casual survey of recent literature about girls and STEM supports the idea that we increase the number of girls entering the pipeline by increasing access to women role models. Without a doubt, increasing opportunities to share our stories and involving girls in hands-on learning is the key. TechBridge Girls and Career Girls are good models to follow.
- Ed: Knowledge and skills in STEM are cumulative. They build on one another. This means that people can build on the current body of knowledge as they make their own discoveries and developments. But it also means that the challenge of achieving STEM grows exponentially if students fall behind or fail to grasp concepts. So it is very important to develop the basic skills, discipline and analytical thought for STEM from an early age. By helping students to understanding the many connections between what they learn in schoolwork and the “real world,” we can help students see the relevance so that they stay excited and engaged.
- Justin: It’s important to teach STEM skills at a young age, for a few reasons. One, so that it almost becomes second nature to children, to change the way they think into more of a structured engineering mindset. Also, because it will expose them to things that will make them excited about learning. Fields in STEM lead to some really cool and exciting career paths. Lastly, learning STEM skills, focusing on a career in that field, and having just a little ambition, will almost guarantee that you will get a good job in the future.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
- Derrick: Within my organization, I have made every attempt to carve out a niche as a problem-solver. Hence, confronting some of the most difficult problems and making a positive change is what I enjoy most about my job.
- Danielle: The freedom to creatively solve problems, and make a difference in national security.
- Kevin: My team and the company culture, both of which accommodate learning and career advancement.
- Eryca: I am not a person who likes to sit behind a desk and design, so diversity in my day is my favorite aspect. We are a highly matrixed organization with many people in different roles that are required for developing our systems for our customer. I have a job that allows me to interact with many of these roles (engineers, technicians, network engineers and a myriad of others) who go into designing, integrating, and deploying our systems. I love that I can be in the lab testing one minute and on a live system at any given time.
- Raymond: I enjoy taking on the challenges associated with leading a team of intelligent engineers that provide solutions to the ever-arising complex issues in the power utility industry. Also being able to serve as a technical mentor and lead the engineers on the team to execute projects with high quality, while also exceeding the expectations of the client is truly gratifying.
- Beverly: The projects I work on often require expertise and collaboration from a multidisciplinary team. The creativity and innovation that results from that type of interaction insures we develop the best solution for our customers. Furthermore, I really love working on teams (as a team leader and member) and have grown technically and personally as a result of those interactions.
- Ed: I love the challenging nature of my job, and working collaboratively with a variety of people to meet my objectives. Just about every day, I have new and different problems to solve. To be successful, I need to understand the big picture, as well as technical details in order to make good decisions. I need to communicate clearly to a wide variety of stakeholders, and to be persuasive enough to win people over. I also have a real need to adapt and re-prioritize on the fly. As a result, every day at work is unique and stimulating.
- Justin: I like a few things about my job. One is that I get to solve pretty complex problems on almost a daily basis. I really never get bored with my job. There is always something new and exciting that requires me to expand my knowledge, to solve. Second, over time, I have gained a significant amount of trust from my peers and management alike. This affords me great influence in designing solutions to the problems I encounter at work.
What was the best career decision you ever made?
- Derrick: Joining the United States Army — words simply cannot describe the breadth of knowledge, leadership capabilities, and other intangibles that men and women can attain via military service.
- Danielle: Obtaining a STEM degree. STEM degrees provide a certain level of job security. The job market is always looking for technical skills.
- Kevin: To move into the power generation and distribution world.
- Eryca: Coming to Leidos (SAIC at the time) was the best decision I ever made for my career growth and path. I am happy to say I found my dream job 10 years ago and I never looked back.
- Raymond: Making the decision to come work at Leidos was the best career decision I ever made. At Leidos, individuals are given the opportunity to work on complicated projects or take on technical leadership positions based on their hard work, dedication and value they bring to the project teams and not solely based on years of experience.
- Beverly: Pursuing a STEM career was the best decision! I have the opportunity to solve problems that are important to me both professionally and personally. For example, a few years after joining the company, I led a team doing breast cancer research in collaboration with Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Windber Research Center. In addition, I recently worked on a project where we used geospatial technology to track nomadic populations in Africa with the goal of helping organizations such as CDC and their partners provide better healthcare delivery. There are many more examples I can cite, but I can enthusiastically say that the analytical and technical skills that form the basis for a STEM career can lead to a diverse and rewarding professional life.
- Ed: The best career decision I made was a conscious and deliberate commitment to always be open to every opportunity, not limiting myself to a narrow definition of my title, role or profession. This has helped me gain so much knowledge, experience and perspective. Enthusiastically taking on new challenges makes you valuable to the organization, builds your skills and capabilities, increases your confidence, makes for an exciting career, and generally opens doors.
- Justin: The best career decision I ever made was jumping into a new job that I wasn’t necessarily the most experienced for, but that would require me to learn, and to work hard at. This allowed me to realize that I was capable of learning and becoming extremely competent doing things that 3, 5, 7 years ago weren’t even on my horizon. It also taught me that being hungry and pushing myself to want more and achieve more, would take me a long way, both in life and in my career.