Staff Spotlights

Diverse Voices Lead to Bold Solutions

Embracing diverse backgrounds and creating collaborative work environments are key practices that lead our teams to game-changing innovations and solutions. These stories highlight those practices in action at APL.

Charles Madison

Asymmetric Operations Sector

As a child, Charles Madison watched the "whites only" signs come down across his Louisiana parish as he began to attend schools that were traditionally white. Today, the Asymmetric Operations Sector's managing executive leads teams working to secure the nation — and he actively pays forward the support he received along his journey.

Staff Spotlight

Charles Madison

Across his work at the Lab, whether he’s pioneering programs to increase representation or mentoring and advising staff members, Asymmetric Operations Sector (AOS) Managing Executive Charles Madison is tireless in asking fellow leaders and colleagues to live up to shared values of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

Madison was in fourth grade in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, in 1970 when he and his Black classmates were first allowed to attend school with white students. Although the U.S. Supreme Court may have ruled in 1954 that it was unconstitutional to racially segregate children in public schools, many in Louisiana worked hard for years to resist integration, and impacts of inequity remain today. In the 1970s, Madison and his five older siblings watched the removal of "whites only" signs across Ascension Parish as they were slowly allowed to attend schools that had once been for white students only.

After earning a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), Madison landed a job at IIT Research Institute, a large national research center for government and industry clients. He spent 20 years at IIT, rising to become senior vice president at its spin-off organization, Alion Science and Technology, where he led a team of 300 engineers and scientists. Next, he worked as an executive director at the Maryland Environmental Service agency, managing a team of 225.

Today, in AOS he leads a team of nearly 1,600 staff members, mostly engineers and scientists, who are working to ensure the national security of the United States. Across his four-decade climb from student to senior leader, he was lifted by his parents and mentors who saw his talent and gave him opportunities. He is now actively paying it forward for fellow professionals at all levels.

In 2016, Madison was appointed to APL's Principal Professional Staff, the highest stature and individual achievement at the Lab, and was also named AOS managing executive, at the time becoming the most senior Black executive on the Lab's Executive Leadership Team. "I'm old and young enough to understand how far we've come and how much further we have to go. I feel blessed by opportunities that have come with that progress," said Madison, who added that he wants to make it easier for people of color to succeed professionally. In an effort to do that, Madison has been the executive adviser to the Diversity and Inclusion Resource Team (DIRecT) in AOS, creating the sector's DEI strategy over the past four years. Donna Gregg, AOS sector head, credits him as a valued adviser on DEI to fellow executives, including herself. "He's been a champion and a role model, and many seek his counsel," she said. "He takes action to advance this work, and I've learned from him."

Under Madison’s encouragement, AOS piloted a DEI ambassador program, and as a result, every AOS group and mission area now has a DEI representative. This has been a "force multiplier," said Gill Brown, a Madison mentee and section supervisor who partnered with him on developing DEI strategy for AOS. The network of 45 ambassadors serving the sector's staff members has nearly quadrupled the number of DEI representatives in the sector. The successful pilot was the inspiration for a program that is now being rolled out Labwide. In addition, Madison has made it clear that a DEI recruiting strategy should extend to internships. Every year, he issues a friendly challenge to his peers across the Lab to outperform his sector in the number of annual APL Technology Leaders and Scholars (ATLAS) summer interns hired from historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges and universities.

In a sector that contributes solutions to a vast set of challenges across mission areas, diversity of background, expertise and thought is critical, and Madison’s understanding of that has helped to advance DEI, not just within AOS, but across the entire Lab. "America is the land of opportunity, and the Lab is a great microcosm of that," Madison said. "If you're a staff member here, you should feel like you can be a part of everything the Lab has to offer. Don't tell yourself that you can't be. Be a part of the ecosystem in the Lab. Propose work, be on committees and step up to leadership."

Danielle Nachman

Asymmetric Operations Sector

With a longtime interest in health and environmental chemistry, geochemist Danielle Nachman is passionate about using her expertise to develop eco-friendly solutions that will filter and destroy dangerous forever chemicals and provide clean drinking water across the country. She’s leading a lab of researchers who have developed a portfolio of PFAS remediation technologies in recent years.

Staff Spotlight

Danielle Nachman

Geochemist Danielle Nachman always knew she wanted to apply her knowledge within the realm of medicine to make the world a healthier and better place, but when she was in college, her journey took an unexpected twist.

“I was actually pre-med for most of my time at Carnegie Mellon University,” Nachman recalled. “In my junior year I took a graduate-level environmental chemistry course with Dr. Ryan Sullivan, and it completely changed my perspective and broadened my interests. Geochemistry presented the opportunity to bring together my interests in health and environmental chemistry, and it has allowed me to study how naturally occurring and human-made environmental contaminants impact environmental ecosystems and human health, and how we might approach mitigating their effects.”

Nachman began to realize that academic research was likely a better fit for her than medical school. She went on to graduate from Carnegie Mellon with a degree in chemistry and then completed her doctorate at Princeton University in the Geosciences Department where, much like with Sullivan, mentorship played a pivotal role in her success. That set her on a path toward the Laboratory, where she’s found a home for her innovative ideas.

“At Princeton, I worked with an amazing Ph.D. adviser and mentor, Dr. Satish Myneni, and I knew he would be a great fit as soon as I met him,” Nachman noted. “I am a strong believer in the importance of impactful teachers and mentors — I have had many myself and I strive to be the same for others — and I knew that if I had the right person guiding me in my research, I would be successful.” Nachman has been utilizing those research skills at APL, where she is leading the Lab’s work to remediate perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also commonly known as PFAS. PFAS are fluorine-containing chemicals found in many household products, such as nonstick cookware, food packaging, cleaning products and stain-resistant carpets; they are also a major component in firefighting foams.

Multiple studies have linked PFAS exposure to harmful health effects in humans and animals, and without a natural way to break them down, the chemicals persist in soil and contaminate the environment — including water. “Everyone has the right to clean drinking water,” Nachman said. “The solutions we’re developing at the Lab are safe, cost-effective and efficient, and they could be implemented in water-filtration systems around the country. At APL, I’m given the chance to come up with sometimes wildly imaginative visions for research and am then given the resources to see those visions through.” The Lab’s scientists are tackling the PFAS challenge from several angles, including filtration, destruction and eventual replacement. They’re also working with the federal government to evaluate additives to PFAS-free fire suppressants that will help those foams meet military requirements. “I absolutely love the work that I do to develop solutions to PFAS remediation and replacement,” Nachman said. “First because I get to contribute to an area of research that is so important right now and can really make a difference in the future, and second because I have the opportunity to work with the most incredible team of scientists with completely different backgrounds and expertise who come to work every day with new ideas for tackling the PFAS challenge.”

In addition to having support from a creative and collaborative team, Nachman says at APL, she’s been able to deliver tangible solutions to problems. “I wanted to not just describe the environmental ecosystem and human health problems through my research, but to propose novel ways to approach these challenges.”

Several filtration and destruction methods that Nachman has collaborated on at the Lab have shown greater than 90% success in capturing and destroying these harmful chemicals, and the team continues to expand and improve their research to deliver clean drinking water.

Eric Cheng

Space Exploration Sector

Eric Cheng, an instrument engineer in the Space Exploration Sector, relishes working with diverse teams to advance technologies that have real-world impacts. He has found that one of the keys to success is a healthy “self-correcting” approach to collaboration.

Staff Spotlight

Eric Cheng

When Eric Cheng chose to concentrate on electrical and computer engineering in college, he was excited at the idea of being a part of a technological revolution. “My generation has seen so much technology advancement in all aspects of our life,” he said. “Being part of this evolution has always been my dream. And I can’t think of any technology area that doesn’t need an electrical and computer engineer.”

After completing his Ph.D. at the University of Florida, Cheng worked as a postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed by brief stints at two start-up companies in Texas and Maryland. But, Cheng said, he felt those experiences were missing something.

“My projects involved individual and small-group research of concepts that were far away from real-world implementations,” he explained. “Although I enjoyed working on multiple exciting projects that could potentially revolutionize the industry, they only resulted in lab prototypes, publications and patents; they never got out of the lab and made a real difference to the world.”

He decided to explore opportunities at larger organizations that offered a chance to work on “more practical” projects. This led him to apply for a position at APL. “The opportunities here offer the best of both worlds,” he said. “I get to work on the coolest projects, from concept to final delivery, and make a real impact by adding knowledge to humanity’s understanding of the universe.”

Cheng is a space instrument engineer for NASA’s Psyche mission, the world's first mission to study a unique metal-rich asteroid orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. He is also a part of the APL team that designed the Mars-moon Exploration with GAmma rays and NEutrons instrument, or MEGANE (pronounced meh-gah-nay, the Japanese word for "eyeglasses"), one of multiple instruments that will ride aboard the Japanese-led Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission to Mars' moons, Phobos and Deimos.

He designs electronic circuits; coordinates the efforts of mechanical engineers, packaging engineers and manufacturing engineers to fabricate the electronic boxes; and tests them to verify that they meet the requirements of the specific space missions.

One of the requirements for the MEGANE instrument was that it be able to operate in a hazardous environment, surviving exposure to thruster plume and landing dust. “It is a highly complicated system that requires high voltage, high vacuum, and cryogenic temperature to operate,” Cheng explained. “We need to periodically expose the interior of the system to the space in order maintain high vacuum, while at the same time preventing contaminants from getting into the system.”

Cheng says the development of this instrument is a highly collaborative effort that involves hundreds of hours of work of many APL and partner institution personnel. “Internally, the APL team held multiple brainstorming sessions and performed trade studies to find potential solutions. Since this is a critical challenge, it needs highly reliable solutions.”

Cheng helped coordinate consultations and reviews among experts from external organizations, including Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA Kennedy Space Center. “Once we finalized a solution, I helped organize a proof-of-concept test campaign to verify all aspects of the solution,” he said. He also led the acquisition and design of the solution’s required components and coordinated their integration and testing.

The key to innovative work at APL, he said, is a healthy “self-correcting” approach to collaboration.

“On our team, individual success is highly attributed to system effectiveness. This relieves any individual from taking sole responsibility for a failure, so that everyone can be bold enough to take initiative without worrying about having to take the blame if their idea fails,” he explained. “Whenever something goes wrong, instead of pointing fingers at individuals, we look at the system and figure out how we can make it more robust against the risk factors that caused the failure.”

Another key to the success of APL’s work is the composition of the teams.

“Every project we work on requires a large team of people with diverse backgrounds, both technically and culturally,” he said. “We all respect everyone’s differences and use them as an asset to enrich our innovative environment. We have a very flexible task assignment system in the group to ensure that every member is happy with the tasks that they are assigned.

“We all have different strengths and weaknesses, and we also have different goals,” he continued. “Some people want tasks that leverage their strengths, while others want to challenge themselves with tasks that they are not yet good at. We all have the flexibility to choose what we want to work on, and we receive support from leadership and peers to help us succeed.”

Jay Brett

Force Projection Sector

For years, Jay Brett wasn’t sure whether to come out as queer, fearful of the repercussions it might have for their career as a physical oceanographer. But even while partially closeted, Brett tried to make waves, and continues to do so now both on land and at sea.

Staff Spotlight

Jay Brett

As a queer scientist, Jay Brett, who uses the pronoun they, has made advocating for inclusive policies in the professional sphere a crucial part of their time. Along with doing research in climate and oceanography, Brett has helped redesignate college campus bathrooms as "all gender," run a conference session on inclusive behaviors, and even co-authored a recent paper on best practices for including transgender and gender-diverse ocean scientists while at sea.

“What I hope for is that the LGBTQ+ community can be fully included in the science community,” Brett said. “Rather than working with a town, county or state for political recognition of and equality for LGBTQ+ people, I am focused on working with my institution and professional society. If they support LGBTQ+ students, staff members and scientists can amplify the call on the broader stage.” Assigned female at birth, Brett knew from an early age they were headed down a rough road. With interests in mathematics and science, even identifying as female (let alone as bisexual and nonbinary) would make them a minority.

Moving through high school, college and graduate school, Brett had to decide how “out” to be about their identity. “Generally, my friends knew and my professors did not,” they said.

Partially closeted, Brett still tried to make strides. As an undergraduate at Skidmore College in New York, Brett joined an academic council that laid plans to establish all-gender bathrooms.

“We mapped the existing gendered bathrooms on campus and advised the school on which ones could easily be changed, like single-user facilities,” Brett said. “And which would have the greatest impact, like multiuser rooms where one gender would otherwise have to travel far to their designated facility.”

But as a graduate student at MIT and later as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, such changes were still being debated, leaving Brett a little more uneasy.

“Being partially closeted in graduate school was uncomfortable,” Brett said. “I knew my success in oceanography depended on me getting my degree, but that required endorsement from my adviser and committee, whose opinions on diversity I didn’t know.” Some of that anxiety quelled around 2015 during an American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference. Someone, Brett recalled, brought rainbow flag pins and made them available, by the usual lanyard/badge station, for attendees to take. “I saw far more people than I had expected wearing the pins that week,” Brett said. “That simple act of solidarity made me feel much more comfortable and gave me hope that I might be able to be out and have a successful career.” Finally, as a postdoctoral fellow and after years of being partially in, partially out, Brett decided to come out professionally by simply adding the pronouns they/them/theirs to their email signature. “I’d deal with any questions as they came up,” they said. To their surprise (and joy), no criticism came.

Since coming to the Lab in 2021, Brett’s career has taken off. They’re part of in an innovative project called PACMANS (short for Physics-informed AI Climate Model Agent Neuro-symbolic Simulators), which leverages the capabilities of artificial intelligence to predict climatic tipping points — critical thresholds that, if crossed, could throw the entire natural climate system into a new state.

The team Brett works with focuses on the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), the system of ocean currents that circulates warm water along the Gulf Stream from the South Atlantic to the Arctic Circle — and whose collapse, researchers and lawmakers worry, could have cascading effects, forcing other natural systems to tip. PACMANS creates a simulated artificial intelligence environment that leverages deep-learning methods, neuro-symbolic representations and surrogate ocean models to predict what conditions could lead to a tipping point.

“The hope is that by doing this work, we’ll be able to get much clearer answers about what could cause the AMOC to turn off,” Brett said. “Because we can fit all the global models into this simplified model, we can say which sets will cause the AMOC to turn off and which ones will say it stays on. That will allow us to get at what is causing those different projections, what it means for the real world and what we might have to worry about.”

Much of the data and models that make PACMANS possible came from oceanographers going out to sea. Brett is among those oceanographers, and the experiences they and others have had as queer and transgender scientists spurred them to publish an article called “Navigating Gender at Sea.” It was a way to share what individuals and institutions can do better to support LGTBQ+ people at sea, whether conducting diversity and harassment trainings or considering single bedrooms and more gender-inclusive bathrooms.

“In my mind, to develop innovative science and technology solutions to national challenges, we need all the contributors we can get in that process,” Brett said. “This means we must not drive out minorities but support them to do their best work. Every person is important to the aggregate success of our community, and no one should be left behind.”

Kasandra Traweek Pirkey

National Security Analysis Department

With 25 years of military service behind her, Kasandra Traweek Pirkey continues to deliver trusted service to the nation through her work as an assistant program manager in the National Security Analysis Department.

Staff Spotlight

Kasandra Traweek Pirkey

Military service in the Navy and Army goes back in Kasandra Traweek Pirkey’s family for six generations. Her grandmother and aunt were in the Army Nurse Corps during World War II and Operation Desert Storm, respectively, and Pirkey joined the military to find a path for her graduate education.

During her time in service, she completed her master’s degree in biology, earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine and gained an entirely new military family in the process.

“I chose the Air Force knowing it had more of a focus on technical training and graduate education,” explained Pirkey, an assistant program manager in the National Security Analysis Department. “My life is significantly better because of my service.”

Pirkey, who served in the military for 25 years, started as a biochemist in the acquisition career field in the Air Force, spending her first two years working in disease outbreak response and occupational chemistry. Five years into her career, she earned her doctorate and transitioned to working in intelligence. She became an intelligence officer at the eight-year mark, and went on to serve in six deployments, two tours as a commander, one overseas tour and four tours at the Pentagon.

“My deployments were all memorable to me,” she said. “I am proud of the work I did during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, Operation Inherent Resolve and Operation Enduring Freedom,” she explained.

Among Pirkey’s favorite assignments were her squadron (lieutenant colonel) and group (colonel) command assignments.

“Both command tours had diverse operations around the world, and I enjoyed the ability to take care of and advance people as a commander.”

Pirkey retired after her last tour as a group commander at Fort Meade. Her family wanted to stay in the Washington, D.C. area, and she was interested in transitioning to APL’s National Security Analysis Department.

“My career goals at APL include staying connected to Department of Defense (DOD) operations and technology development advancement,” she said. “I use my military experience to refine analysis of new technologies on behalf of the DOD operations community, in addition to my leadership role.”

Pirkey remains active in the Air Force military community as a mentor to several senior officers and chiefs. She also helps several people in their transition from work to retirement and future job opportunities. She attributes her time in the service for teaching her valuable lessons in servant leadership.

“I was fortunate to have several outstanding mentors who helped me develop and stay humble,” she said. “I firmly believe that the best leaders serve to develop, guide and grow with their forces.”

Makita Phillips

Air and Missile Defense Sector

Makita Phillips, a thermal structural analyst in the Air and Missile Defense Sector, views mentorship as a way to give back to the next generation of engineers. APL’s commitment to professional development provides her with a supportive environment to pass down knowledge and to participate in DEI-based professional societies.

Staff Spotlight

Makita Phillips

As the child of career civil servants and grandchild of sharecroppers and domestic helpers, resilience is coded in Makita Phillips’ DNA. Her upbringing, where excellence was expected and exuded, shaped her outlook on life. She excelled in academics and became the first African American woman to obtain a doctorate in mechanical engineering from North Carolina State University.

Now, Phillips is a thermal and structural analyst in APL’s Air and Missile Defense Sector where she works with hypersonic flight systems. When Phillips joined APL in 2019, she participated in the AMDS mentor program. There she gained a better understanding of the work available to her and options for career growth. Her mentor made her feel comfortable asking a lot of questions, which led Phillips to discover an issue impacting target work on a project. Using in-house structural analysis tools, she worked through the problem with her team to prevent future issues.

“I was new and asking a lot of questions to make sure I approached the work correctly. My team was very supportive and provided great feedback so that we could address the issue,” said Phillips. “The collaborative environment provided space to ask those questions.”

In addition to her role at APL, Phillips mentors young engineers and students with the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). Students often turn to Phillips to understand how to best navigate graduate school. Phillips views the role as a way to pass on knowledge that she gained from her own mentors. She also knows the value for NSBE members to see themselves mirrored in their mentors.

“As a child, I enjoyed shows and movies about historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). I saw a future me reflected in those characters,” said Phillips. Throughout her own experience in the Prince George's County public school system, she was surrounded by peers and educators who excelled, and who looked like her.

After high school Phillips was awarded the President's Distinguished Scholarship, a four-year full scholarship, to the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, a storied HBCU in Tallahassee, Florida. It was there that she joined NSBE. During her master's program, she became more involved with NSBE and was elected to the regional executive board as public relations chair.

She then pursued her doctorate at NC State. There, she started the Minority Engineering Graduate Student Association and joined the NSBE national executive board as National Leadership Institute Chair.

At APL, Phillips found a supportive environment that encourages her participation in diversity, equity and inclusion–based professional societies like NSBE.

“Mentorship is not only encouraged here, there is an infrastructure to support transferring knowledge and skill sets across staff members,” said Phillips.

Phillips sees being a mentor as a way to give back and “empty her cup.” When talking with a mentee, she’ll help them identify where they can be successful and encourage them to take on different opportunities. She is also not afraid to share her own experiences and failures.

Phillips says that she benefits from her work with younger staff too. “Our young staff has a very inquisitive nature. If they have questions that I can’t answer, I’m honest about that. They often turn around to find the answer and come back to teach me too.”

Tytan Taliaferro

Force Projection Sector

For Tytan Taliaferro, a junior software engineer in the Force Projection Sector and the co-president of APL's African American Culture Club, resilience paved the way for him to become the man he is today, fueled by educational values to instill change.

Staff Spotlight

Tytan Taliaferro

In elementary school, while his peers were away at sports camp or enjoying summer vacation, Tytan Taliaferro was doubling down on his education. “I was always involved in some type of educational endeavor: math workbooks, literature — several books a week with required full-page reports and verbal quizzes. I grumbled and complained, but my mother was unbothered,” Taliaferro recalled with a smile. “She would say, ‘You may hate this now, but one day you’ll thank me.’”

Taliaferro’s entire Nigerian American family — his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles — constituted “a village where education reigned supreme,” pushing him to lean in to every opportunity to explore his natural curiosity and push the limits of his abilities. Their influence led him to pursue an interest in robotics in elementary school, despite facing discouragement from teachers. Undaunted, he wrote a letter to the club’s facilitator, detailing his interest and his unblemished record of academic success and stressing the importance of investing in the success of all students regardless of their background.

That same kind of negativity only intensified in middle school, where teachers continued to discourage him and his peers sang songs mocking him for his race and appearance. Then, tragedy struck: his father passed away as a result of congestive heart failure. “To go from basking in his love and influence to being the oldest child of a single mother was a major adjustment, but it also made me want to excel all the more,” Taliaferro recalled. “I wanted to shatter all the negative stereotypes.”

Driven by a passionate curiosity about the equipment that had kept his father alive in his final months, and surrounded by relatives working in the medical field, Taliaferro dove deep into understanding biomedical devices in high school, where he attended a special STEM program. In high school he excelled, earning a place in the National Honor Society, playing basketball at the junior varsity and varsity levels and taking as many Advanced Placement courses as he could. Noticing his work ethic and his interest in science and engineering, several teachers encouraged him to apply to APL’s ASPIRE program.

Taliaferro spent a semester as an ASPIRE intern in the Force Projection Sector (FPS). Under the mentorship of Brian Lane, he discovered a passion for computer science, which conflicted with his original major as biomedical engineer. Despite his doubts, his mother constantly encouraged him: “Do what makes you excited to get up and go to class.” He switched majors, and went on to join the National Society of Black Engineers and work in the University of Maryland’s Engineering Career Services Office, where he motivated and encouraged students like him to pursue goals that might have seemed out of reach to them.

Today, Taliaferro works as a junior software engineer in FPS and serves as co-president of APL’s African American Culture Club. “My goal is not only to be bold in a way where people's lives are enhanced by the technology I'm able to develop, but to continue using my skill set to inspire others that look like me who may doubt themselves,” he said. “When skeptics fail to see your true capabilities, it is important to embrace your strength and know that through resilience, you will be able to excel on a path meant just for you.”