APL Staff Stories

Click each image to learn about some APLers who love their STEM careers!


Space Mission Design Analyst

Education: B.A. in Geophysics and Planetary Science, M.S. in Aerospace Engineering Sciences

My Job: Imagine this scenario. NASA now wants to send a spacecraft to an asteroid. They ask you "How do we get there?" And now it's up to you to decide how we get to the asteroid, if we will fly by any other planets to reach the asteroid, how long the mission will take, when the best time to launch is, the mass that the launch vehicle can provide, etc. How do you do that? Well, my job is to figure out all of that information! I'm a mission design engineer in APL's Space Department, so it's up to me to figure out how and when we get to our target. I work on everything from Earth orbiters to interplanetary missions for both the Department of Defense and NASA. I am currently the mission design lead for soft Lunar Lander missions.

My Career: What I really like about being a mission design analyst is that I get to work with so many different people. I work with people in different systems, such as guidance and control, navigation, propulsion, and mission operations, just to name a few. It's pretty cool to know that I decide where a spacecraft will fly. It is a great responsibility, and sometimes it does require playing with rockets, so I can officially say that I am a rocket scientist.


Biomedical Engineer

Education: B.S. in Bioengineering, M.S. in Bioengineering

My Job: I work in experimental biomechanics, developing and testing human surrogate torso models and systems that allow us to investigate the effects that blasts have on the human body. The instrumented human torso lets us to evaluate the ability of body armor to protect soldiers against blast and ballistic impacts. It's my responsibility to ensure the readiness of test devices, run and maintain data-acquisition systems, and process and analyze experimental data. I've also developed experimental and computational methodologies to construct and validate finite element models of the human knee.

How I Got Here: I've always had a fascination with and a keen interest in understanding the human body, in addition to the sciences in general. Oddly, though, I was never driven to become a medical professional. In preparation for college, I was reviewing various academic programs and came across an intriguing title: biomedical engineering. It seemed like the best of both worlds to me—a marriage of medical (without practicing traditional medicine) and basic science!


Biomedical Engineer

Education: B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, M.S. in Mechanical Engineering

Choosing a Career: In high school I saw a Discovery Channel program on building artificial limbs and thought to myself, "That would be a really cool job to have one day." Although at the time I didn't think that seemed very realistic, the thought of bringing together engineering and medicine stuck. As a mechanical engineering student in college, I took classes in impact biomechanics in order to understand how the human body responds in car crashes. I worked at an orthopedic biomechanics laboratory to understand how ankle fractures occur and how to better treat them.

My Job: At APL I work on a prosthetic program that has some wonderful opportunities to develop virtual worlds for amputees to practice using limbs and to develop specialized devices that allow an amputee to "feel" through their prosthetic hand. One surprising twist to working with the prosthetic limbs was a research opportunity where we adapted the robotic arms onto a mobile platform. This gave us the ability to tele-operate these dexterous manipulators and create a device that could be remotely controlled to perform tasks that required manual dexterity, all from a safe zone that could potentially prevent individuals from getting injured in the first place!


Physicist and Program Manager

Education: B.A. in Physics, M.S. in Applied Physics

My Job: I'm the Assistant Mission Area Executive for Precision Strike at APL. I have a strong background in strike warfare systems analysis and anti-surface warfare analysis (specifically for Harpoon and Tomahawk cruise missiles), with an emphasis on the development of requirements and operational concepts for future systems. My experience has ranged from the development of survivability and effectiveness models to the technical evaluation of potential missile system improvements to the development of operational concepts for employment of today's weapon systems in tomorrow's environment.

Career Advice: If you're curious and you're organized, you have the potential to be a great engineer. Engineering is like putting a puzzle together. You have to understand the big picture—what the puzzle should look like when it's done. Then you experiment in an organized way to figure out how all the pieces fit together. Engineering isn't about knowing or memorizing all the answers. It's about having the basic understanding, doing some research or experimentation, and figuring out the answer.


Electrical Engineer

Education: B.S. in Electrical Engineering, M.S. in Electrical Engineering

My Job: My job is to assess the vulnerabilities of wireless communication systems to provide solutions to protect our systems or interfere with possible adversary systems. In addition, I serve as a developing radio frequency (RF) propagation and antenna expert for our team. In my position, one day I may be modeling RF signal propagation over seawater or in urban environments, another day I may be developing jammer signals to cause denial-of-service of wireless systems, and another day I may be assessing the probability of intercepting a satellite signal.

Why I Love What I Do: My current job is not exactly the one I planned for, but better. The RF and telecommunications world is just fascinating. What I love about my job is that my contributions may be critical for the safety of others, plus the challenges I face take me out of my comfort zone to explore new areas and state-of-the-art technologies. The days I enjoy the most are those field tests when I get the chance to go somewhere exciting, or just a remote area, and get my hands dirty.



Education: B.S. in Industrial Microbiology, M.S. & Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology

My Job: I'm a biologist in APL's Applied Biology, Chemistry, and Nuclear Sciences Group, and my technical background is in cellular immunology, virology, and microbiology/molecular biology. I study the immune system (cells, tissues, organs) and its reaction to viruses, bacteria, chemical and biological threats, and other things that might pose harm to the body (and our nation's security).

How I Got Here: When my science teacher took me to a university lab, I was hooked. Using the equipment and having my lab coat and safety goggles on was the first step in launching my interests. I love my work—it's very intriguing and gratifying at the same time. It's a great feeling to know that your work and the work of others in your area helps to protect the nation—your family, your next-door neighbor, your friend, your colleague—against biological and chemical threats.


Software Engineer/Analyst

Education: B.S. in Applied and Engineering Physics, M.S. in Computer Science (in process)

My Job: My job is to help determine the accuracy and reliability of the U.S. Navy's Trident II Weapon System by analyzing a specific portion of the total weapon-system delivery method that is known as Powered Flight. I am also helping with a research and development project: a software tool that will help streamline military communication.

How I Got Here: I've always had an interest in science, ever since my first courses on the subject in middle school. Then, in my senior year of high school, I took my first physics class and found it fascinating that math could be used to predict physical quantities, such as the path a ball will take when thrown. I continued to study physics in college and absolutely enjoyed it. I want to understand how things work, and a degree in science has allowed me to gain that knowledge.


Mission Operations Manager

Education: B.A. in Physics and Chemistry

My Job: As the Mission Operations Manager for New Horizons, a 1,054-pound APL-built NASA spacecraft, I'm the first woman at APL to manage the operations of a space mission. New Horizons is on a 10-year journey to Pluto, the last planet in our solar system to be visited by a spacecraft. I manage New Horizons' mission operations team, making sure that personnel, procedures, and equipment in the operations center are always ready to support the mission. Our team has to maintain constant contact with the spacecraft to make sure all instruments are operating properly. We also gather the data that New Horizons collects during its long voyage and share those data with researchers. My job is primarily to keep the spacecraft and its scientific payload safe and healthy so that it can return many scientific measurements and pictures when it reaches the edge of our solar system in 2015.

Career Comment: I'm amazed at how many people are interested in space exploration and how supportive they are even when things don't go as expected. We receive encouragement from people all over the world. I think this proves that space exploration speaks to our souls, our quest for knowledge, and the insatiable curiosity that we have as human beings. My career is more than I thought it would be. Almost every day I have to pinch myself to make sure that I'm not dreaming.


Guidance and Control Engineer

Education: B.S. in Electrical Engineering, M.S. in Applied and Computational Mathematics

My Job: I develop autopilot and guidance routines that allow air vehicles, like missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to fly by themselves. These routines control how a vehicle flies through the air by changing the angles of movable surfaces like elevons and rudders. Using feedback sensors that measure the vehicle's position and orientation, we can program a UAV to maintain a desired altitude, fly a desired route, or even autonomously search an area with a camera. I lot of my work is hands-on, in a laboratory (the Rapid Guidance, Navigation, and Control Prototyping and Air Vehicle Integration Laboratory, or RPIL for short), or doing field work.

My Career: What I really love about my job is that I am constantly being challenged with new experiences. One week I may be sitting at my desk developing a high-fidelity missile simulation, and the next week may find me standing in the middle of the desert demonstrating novel swarm algorithms with a fleet of hand-launchable UAVs. I never know what I will be challenged with next in my job, and I love that.


Mechanical Engineer

Education: B.S. in Mechanical Engineering

My Job: I work on a variety of projects at APL. One of my roles is project manager for the engineering development of a prototype sonar buoy, which means I oversee our subcontractors, review their designs, and lead teams of engineers to make recommendations on design changes. I also go out on engineering tests for everything from subcomponent testing (to make sure all of the smaller pieces of the system work correctly) all the way through a sea test of the entire system (to make sure it functions as a whole).

I'm also the technical lead on a project to determine a method for analyzing the performance of post-theater body armor.

I love my job because I get to interact with a lot of people and get to learn about wide variety of new technologies and how systems are put together and interact. My job is different than I expected coming out of college. I assumed I would do mechanical design of some sort, and I ended up finding a career doing more systems engineering work—where you get to take all of those designed parts, put them together, and make them work. I like getting to see the "big picture."

How I Got Here: I had a great high school physics teacher and really loved the class, which is why I chose engineering as a profession. My physics teacher thought that girls couldn't do science and math as well as boys, so my best friend and I had a fantastic time proving him wrong by being the top two students in his class.


Systems Engineer

Education: B.S. in Systems Engineering, M.S. & Ph.D. in Systems Engineering

My Job: As part of the System Modeling and Estimation Group, I develop algorithms and programs to assess the accuracy of the Trident II ballistic missile. A large part of what we do is performing statistical analyses of flight test data and communicating the results of our analysis. With my career in engineering at APL, I get to test and evaluate complex systems and identify potential performance enhancements. As an engineer, I also have to clearly communicate my methods and results. And more importantly, I have to identify the implication of the results for system operation, performance, and maintenance.

Why I Love What I Do: I've always been interested in how things work and how to make them work better. The most valuable skills I obtained in engineering school were learning how to learn, how to solve problems, and how to work in a team. I'm constantly confronted with new challenges working at APL, but my educational background and skill set give me the confidence I need to succeed. I love the "eureka!" moment—the instant when the solution to a difficult problem becomes clear in my mind—even though that moment is often the result of study, collaboration, experimentation, and creativity.


Microelectronics Process Engineer

Education: B.S. in Electrical Engineering, M.S. & Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering

My Job: I'm currently involved in microelectronics-related research and development and the execution of fabrication standard processes and procedures (the "how-to-do-it" information). My areas of expertise include optical interferometry, photolithography, wet etching of metals and dielectrics, ellipsometry, thermal oxidation of silicon, electrochemical analysis and synthesis, carbon dioxide lasing, and laser stress measurement of silicon. My current research relates to nanoporous anodized aluminum, thin-film appliqué, tin whisker physics of failure, and microtoroidal calcium fluoride optical structures.

How I Got Here: Back when I was a business student, I felt like I wasn't really being challenged intellectually. During my senior year, I took an elective class called "Electrical Engineering for Non-Majors," and it was there that I discovered my passion for engineering. Although the class covered mostly basic concepts—household electrical safety, simple AC/DC circuits, etc.—the professor was very enthusiastic, and I was really excited by how tangible/hands-on the subject was, how mentally satisfying it was to work on, and even how practically useful it was in everyday life!"


Engineer and Air Defense Project Manager

Education: B.S. in Aerospace Science Engineering, M.S. in Information and Telecommunications Systems Management

My Job: I organize and work with teams to develop missile and computer program solutions. As a Program/Project Manager for missile and ship systems, I negotiate tasks and projects for engineers and analysts and also interact with project sponsors such as the Missile Defense Agency to make sure that contract requirements are met. I coordinate work with multiple agencies and manage budgetary decisions for multimillion-dollar projects. It's also my responsibility to make sure that the work we do is performed as specified, on time, and within the budget.

Career Comment: My work really is rocket science. And it's not that complicated if you break it down into pieces. If you think of your life as rocket science, your life's journey is the body or fuselage of the rocket; the fins are control surfaces like your parents, teachers, rules, etc.; and the things that can propel/fuel you are a positive attitude, a great education, and a great work ethic. Rocket science is cool and applicable to all aspects of life.


Analytical Chemist

Education: B.S. in Chemistry, M.S. in Organic Chemistry, Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry

My Job: I'm an expert in the use of mass spectrometric techniques for analyzing biological and chemical compounds, and I develop physical methods for the detection and characterization of biological pathogens/biological threat agents, as well as chemical components within complex environments. I also mentor and work with children and teens to encourage them to pursue careers in science and technology.

Career Advice: Keep an open mind when identifying potential careers, and try to incorporate as many of your talents as possible. Take as many math and science courses as possible to help determine what interests you most, and don't be afraid to ask for help. Most of all, choose a career where you can have fun, even though it's work, and try not to let other people bring you down for being smart.


Research Scientist

Education: B.S. in Chemistry, Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry

My Job: I work on materials and nanostructures that are used primarily for air and space applications, including coatings, power management, self-healing materials, and bionanomaterials. My areas of expertise are advanced materials, nanotechnology, analytical chemistry, microfabrication, metrology, sensor systems, and thermal management through materials. I'm also an instructor for The Johns Hopkins University part-time Engineering for Professionals program and have developed two courses in materials science as part of that program.

Career Comments: I was initially inspired by a female high school teacher who taught me math, advanced biology, and chemistry. I was impressed that she knew so many subjects so well, and it became obvious through her teaching how these disciplines are interrelated. My work in nanomaterials is very interdisciplinary as well, and I like that it is at the cutting edge of technology and has so many applications. I work with colleagues from many diverse disciplines every day. I enjoy the continuous learning process that comes from this type of work, and the variety of interesting projects. I also really enjoy teaching because I get to share my knowledge and interests while hopefully helping to inspire others.


Electrical Engineer

Education: B.S. in Bioengineering & Electrical Engineering, M.S. in Electrical Engineering

My Job: I am the Controls and Software Systems Lead for Phase 2 of the Revolutionizing Prosthetics (RP) program——an ambitious undertaking to produce an advanced prosthetic arm that looks, feels, performs, and is controlled like a natural limb. The goal of the RP program is to restore function, choices, and quality of life to injured soldiers. As part of the RP team, I define team roles, responsibilities, and tasking for the group, which is made up of APL staff as well as individuals from external partner organizations. I also develop and review requirements, test plans and descriptions, software designs, and integration plans. My classes in control systems, biomedical instrumentation, and image processing made it possible for me to lead a team of talented engineers with diverse engineering disciplines.

Career Advice: Embrace your talents and diversity. The diverse talents of our team were what enabled us to prototype a prosthetic arm with amazing capabilities in a very short time.


Mechanical Engineer/Program Manager

Education: B.S. in Engineering Science and Mechanics, M.S. in Engineering Mechanics/ Biomechanics, M.B.A.

My Job: I'm the Program Manager for the Biomechanics and Injury Mitigation Systems Program. We work to improve the safety of the warfighter on the battlefield. To do this, we

  1. Determine how the human body is injured during events such as an explosion, an impact from a bullet when wearing body armor, or a helicopter or vehicle crash.
  2. Develop ways to measure or predict the injury that occurs. This is done with physical models that can be evaluated in a crash, blast, etc., and computer models that predict the body's response to simulated loading conditions.
  3. Develop ways to reduce potential injuries. As manager, I interact with our sponsors and end users on a daily basis. I regularly see how the work we do makes an immediate impact.

My Career: APL is a unique environment. It provides the satisfaction of working on challenging issues facing our government today with a focus on applied solutions that allow performers to see the near-term impact of their work. The work opportunities are very good. The more you perform successfully, the more opportunities and challenges you are provided.


Signal Processing Engineer/Project Manager

Education: B.S. in Computer Engineering, M.S. in Electrical Engineering

My Job: My background is in researching and developing advanced signal-processing and statistical machine-learning algorithms for military platforms like submarines. Currently I'm implementing adaptive pattern-recognition algorithms on autonomous vehicles. That means you're going to deploy an unmanned air, water, or ground vehicle and tell it to keep learning while it's in the field. It's a very challenging problem, and the key is to make sure that the vehicle performs reliably while it's adapting its understanding of the world around it. I like the diversity in what I do from day to day. On a really good day, I might be writing a great piece of MATLAB code, presenting my work at a technical conference in an exotic locale, or watching my algorithms function in the water from the deck of a research vessel.

How I Got Here: During college, I was emotionally split between engineering and the liberal arts and sciences. As a budding musician, writer, and deep-thinker, I took many history, philosophy, and narrative writing classes in addition to my engineering curriculum, even at the graduate level. Much of the way through school, I figured I'd get an engineering degree to fall back on but ultimately become a full-time hip hop artist. It was actually my internship at APL that got me interested enough in engineering work that I decided to try having both careers. Today I still manage to pursue both music and engineering.


Mechatronics Engineer

Education: B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, M.S. in Mechanical Engineering

My Job: I work in APL's Research and Exploratory Development Department, which means the projects that I work on are the technologies that might be mainstream in 10 or more years. I often look at brand new research coming out of universities and try to figure out how to apply it to a practical engineering problem. My main interest is in helping pocket-sized robots navigate and maneuver in difficult environments. Almost every environment is difficult when you're small!

Robotics is a highly interdisciplinary field. I have degrees in mechanical engineering, but I work with electronics and computer programming as well. I'm fascinated by miniature robotics because they require integration of these types of subsystems. I have to design clever mechanisms that best utilize the limited power sources available and have to find new ways to use electronic sensors so that the robot controllers can do useful things with limited resources.

My Favorite Kind of Workday: My good days start when I encounter a difficult technical problem and end with the problem being understood and solved. It might be an electronic circuit that doesn't behave properly or a mechanism that doesn't move the right way. Solving the problem could mean using test and measurement equipment to find the error, or designing a new component and building it the same day on rapid prototyping equipment. I also enjoy it when someone comes by with a new, unsolved problem that requires an impromptu brainstorming session on possible technical solutions.


Robotics Engineer

Education: B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, M.S. in Mechanical Engineering, Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering

My Job: As a robotics engineer, I come up with ideas and develop new technology for using robots to perform difficult engineering and science missions for humans. I work in APL's Space Department, where I mainly concentrate on robots for exploring outer space and other planets. I develop computer software that allows robots to move around (navigate) in different environments and perform human-commanded tasks on their own using sensors, computers, and motors. I lead teams of different types of engineers and technicians (mechanical, computer, electrical, etc.) on projects to design, build, and operate robots to tackle important missions in space and on Earth.

How I Got Here: I became interested in robotics as a result of always trying since childhood to combine different activities that I enjoyed. I spent my time drawing and sketching art and taking "things" apart or putting "things" together. Engineers love to figure things out and come up with clever solutions to difficult and interesting problems using science, math, and technology. In my job I have many opportunities to apply my ideas to help solve new problems and work with others to create robotics solutions. In the process I get to have fun with robots, learn new ways to make them work better, and enjoy the excitement of seeing them work on important missions, especially in space.


Spacecraft Engineer

Education: B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, M.S. in Mechanical Engineering

My Job: As the supervisor of APL's Environmental Test Facility, I shake and bake spaceflight hardware (vibration and thermal vacuum testing). The shake part simulates the launch, and the bake part simulates the post-launch, on-orbit environment. Almost all of the components and subsystems, including the full-up spacecraft, go through my area to be qualified for launch and operation in space. We do most of our work as a team—it's critical to the successful operation of the facility.

How I Got Here: I've always been interested in engineering. When we were kids, my brothers and I used to work on our family car—changing the oil and fixing some mechanical problems. Of course, our father had the final say on what we could do to the car. I used to test components for aircraft, spacecraft, rockets, missiles, munitions, etc. It was very exciting and challenging, but I was never able to see or work on the end product. Here at APL, we work on components as well as full-up spacecraft, and we are also able to see the final product, which is the science provided by the mission.