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Cheryl Beard: Engineering Air and Missile Defense

Cheryl BeardGrowing up, Cheryl Beard wanted to be an astronaut, but she didn’t know anyone who could tell her how to do that. Her guidance counselor was not particularly helpful; when Beard asked for advice on pursuing her dream, the counselor gave her a quizzical look and simply handed her a list of women’s colleges. So Beard did what she could; she looked at the degrees those colleges offered and picked the best fit: astronautical engineering.

She eventually switched that major to aeronautical, then to mechanical engineering. And just a few years later, Beard would become one of the first two female propulsion test engineers at the Naval Air Propulsion Center in Trenton, New Jersey, shortly after earning her mechanical engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Since then, her 29-year career has been spent doing just what she wanted—engineering and managing U.S. Navy and Air Force projects involving jet engines, aircraft, helicopters, bombs and missiles, radar, and other electronic systems. In one position, working in the Navy’s Jet Trainer Program Office and traveling to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, her job description was simple: handle the funding, improve relations with the Air Force, and keep things running smoothly for her captain. One big plus while she was there: the opportunity to fly a T-34 aircraft.

Over the years, Beard has had many remarkable experiences, but one of her favorites came while working at the Pentagon on a rotational assignment. She was part of a VIP delegation that flew on a C-2 plane which landed on the aircraft carrier USS Stennis. She spent the night onboard and toured the ship and its operations for 2 days. “While getting to fly out to these ships isn’t uncommon in my field, the unique opportunity to experience an arrested landing and then catapult off the deck for takeoff is something I will never forget," says Beard.

Beard started at APL in 2004 as a project manager for systems assessments and has been working on breakthrough defense technologies for the Laboratory ever since. By 2007, she had become assistant program manager for advanced, in-service, and international radars—an area in which she had experience. Not only did her experience make her well-suited for the job, it also gave her the opportunity to work again with her Air and Missile Defense Department (AMDD) colleague, Salvador Talisa, a section supervisor in the Radar and Electronic Warfare Systems Development Group who helped recruit her to the Lab. “Cheryl brings both strong managerial and organizational skills as well as the ability to work well with engineers and technical staff on her programs,” says Talisa. “I liked the Lab and knew that she would enjoy the environment here too.”

In 2011, Beard became the advanced projects manager in AMDD and is responsible for the day-to-day project management of four sponsor-funded advanced technology projects. “Cheryl excels at identifying new science and technology [S&T] opportunities,” says Rob Patterson, AMDD advanced projects program manager. “She is not only good at overseeing these S&T initiatives; she is very effective at transitioning basic research results into applied solutions to resolve the critical challenges of Navy sponsors.”

When Beard learned that she had been nominated as one of the APL’s “Women Making History,” she joked with her family that she’s now old enough “to be part of history.” Her years of experience make her a resource for young women just starting out in her field, and for them, Beard has a few sage words of advice: “Enjoy your college experience and make the most of it. Things have changed dramatically since I was in school, and getting a graduate degree in science and engineering today is key.”