Press Release

Six From Johns Hopkins APL Honored with Black Engineer of the Year Awards

Mika Ayenson, Adam Freeman, Malik Little, Justin McGrath, Makita Phillips and Jaime Arribas Starkey-El have earned Black Engineer of the Year Awards, joining a cadre of Laboratory staff members who have been recognized by the organization.

They were honored last week at the 35th Black Engineer of the Year Awards and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Global Competitiveness Conference, established to promote career opportunities in STEM fields to historically underrepresented groups through professional and career development, educational programs, awards programs and career placement opportunities.

Modern Day Technology Leaders

Ayenson, McGrath and Little were honored with the Modern Day Technology Leaders award, given to professionals shaping the future of engineering, science and technology.

Ayenson supervises the Cyber Systems Development and Experimentation Section in APL’s Asymmetric Operations Sector (AOS). He has led development of the APL Cyber Experimentation Center, an experimentation center capable of rapidly standing up realistic computer environments — a previously lengthy, manual and difficult-to-customize task — where cyber researchers can closely monitor the progress of complex experiments. He is also the manager for several projects, including one to design and conduct rigorous cyber experiments that assess the cognitive and technical effects of cyber maneuvers. He has demonstrated an ability to drive cutting-edge research and has received multiple software-development awards during his short time at APL. He was recently appointed as a research area co-lead for the Continuous Cyber Advantage envisioned future in AOS, to further experimentation and rigorous research at the Lab.

McGrath, a mechanical engineer in the Lab’s Air and Missile Defense Sector (AMDS), is the project lead and systems engineer for launcher upgrades and integration efforts in support of the Navy’s Integrated Warfare Systems Program Office. He has been the lead designer on packaging new launcher electronics and for completing analysis for changes to a gas management system. During his time at APL, he has assembled several cross-disciplinary teams to support Department of Defense programs. For example, he led the development of a kinematic testbed that replicates operational motion of a new system in an indoor test facility to realistically stimulate a payload’s ignition electronics.

Little, also of AMDS, led an Integrated Air and Missile Defense study that impacted tactical guidance for how sailors set up the AN/SPY-1 radar on Aegis Baseline 9C ships, and he was the lead APL radar analyst supporting the investigation of missile firings in the Red Sea by the USS Mason. He also supported the planning, execution and postflight analysis of many Aegis test and evaluation events for the Program Executive Office for Integrated Warfare Systems 1 (PEO IWS 1), eventually representing APL as a voting panel member for test event certification. He currently supports the integration of AN/SPY-6 into Aegis Baseline 10 for PEO IWS 2’s Advanced Radars program as the Combat System Integration Working Group team lead.

Outstanding Technical Contribution

Freeman is a senior materials chemist in APL’s Research and Exploratory Development Department. He has made significant technical contributions to the field of flexible, robust and safe battery technology through novel electrolyte formulations. Although lithium-ion batteries are ubiquitous, they rely on highly flammable and combustible materials, and can ignite or explode without warning. Freeman led efforts to eliminate that risk by using a water-based gel polymer electrolyte consisting of highly concentrated salt solutions in a gel polymer matrix. Leveraging his knowledge of fast UV-cure polymer systems, he developed a flexible electrolyte system, based on thiol-ene chemistry, overcoming key deficiencies in current batteries. His approach produced highly conductive, thin, flexible electrolyte films for the first time. Batteries based on these freestanding, self-extinguishing aqueous gels are safe, and they continue to function after being cut, immersed in water and subjected to ballistic impact.

His work to revolutionize safe flexible battery technology has resulted in numerous publications, patent applications and prestigious awards.

Dr. Sandra Johnson Legacy Award

Before joining APL in 2019, Phillips, a structural analyst in AMDS, was an American Society of Engineering Education/National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow and Research and Development Engineer at Carbice Corporation and Georgia Tech. She is an active National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) member who has received several awards and served in numerous capacities, including two terms as the National Leadership Institute chair. Recently, she was appointed as the Graduate School Conference Chair for NSBE’s 47th Annual Convention. She also founded both the Minority Engineering Graduate Student Association at North Carolina State University and the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University Engineering Alumni Chapter. Phillips is recognized for her unique modeling and simulation experience in thermal and structural systems, and she is an important contributor to the development of load-bearing, high-temperature thermal protection systems.

Science Spectrum Trailblazer

Starkey-El is a data scientist for the Physical Threat Detection Systems Group in AOS. He analyzes data to identify indicators of threats to the health and safety of civilians and soldiers, then develops algorithms and tools to automate the detection of these threats and facilitate more effective responses. He is also the chair of the APL Technology Leadership Scholars (ATLAS) internship program committee. ATLAS was developed for full-time college students majoring in a STEM field at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) or Tribal College or University (TCU). Under his leadership, the ATLAS committee has increased staff member engagement in the program, the number of student applications and intern cohort sizes. Moreover, his efforts helped ATLAS achieve the highest conversion rate (transitioning interns to full-time employees) of any internship program at APL.