Johns Hopkins APL’s DeLaHunt Earns Society of Women Engineers Advocacy Award

Sylvie DeLaHunt, a senior guidance, navigation and control engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, has been honored with a WE Local 2022 Engaged Advocate Award from the Society of Women Engineers.

The Engaged Advocate Award honors individuals who have contributed to the advancement or acceptance of women in engineering.

“Sylvie champions diversity, equity and inclusion through her roles and leadership positions at APL and in the engineering community,” said Kerri Phillips, an APL program area manager, in a letter nominating DeLaHunt for the award. “She has a strong commitment to leadership in service of others, integrity, strategic thinking, self-initiative and teamwork. She will be the first to challenge the status quo, even when it means standing up to those with more influence and power.”

DeLaHunt said she didn’t set out to be involved in diversity and inclusion initiatives but simply followed a path that organically led her in that direction. “I wasn’t involved in diversity and inclusion in college, but at the same time, I wasn’t a stranger to the notion that there are obstacles for women,” she said, recalling that only 12% of the students in her undergrad program were women.

As she moved into graduate school, some of the challenges were subtle while others were overt. “When I earned a National Science Foundation fellowship, I had a male colleague who said it was worth less than his because it was ‘easier to get for girls,’” she said. “That sort of thing happened from time to time.”

Excelling at what she did was the best defense, and DeLaHunt went on to be named one of “Tomorrow’s Engineering Leaders: The 20 Twenties,” by Aviation Week and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

That foreshadowed a quick ascension in her professional career, Phillips said, noting that DeLaHunt was selected to lead a team of engineers after only four years at APL and was reclassified to APL’s Senior Professional Staff after only five years.

DeLaHunt quickly became involved with the APL Women in Technology (AWiT) affinity group (formerly the Society of Women Engineers at APL), holding formal leadership positions — including president — from 2017 to 2020. During her tenure as AWiT president, she guided a nine-person volunteer leadership team in hosting 25 Labwide events, including those focused on professional development, diversity and inclusion, and STEM outreach, as well as social and networking events.

Looking back at her tenure, DeLaHunt said she’s especially proud of her work with Laboratory leadership to remove membership dues for affinity groups — and eliminate a barrier to participation. In the process, she secured an increase in funding for APL’s eight affinity groups.

She also championed several successful professional development events, including Lunch with Lab Leadership, which became an annual event connecting early-career staff members with senior leaders to foster mentoring relationships, and “Calling All Men: How You Can Be an Ally to Women at APL,” a mixed-gender panel focused on allyship.

DeLaHunt said it’s important to carve out time to network with communities like these and to participate in events such as the national SWE conferences. “As a woman engineer it’s so important to be able to surround yourself with other women, from college students you can inspire to senior executives who are so inspirational to you. It can be reinvigorating, even empowering,” she said.

Her advocacy of diversity, equity and inclusion in engineering is broad, from writing a well-received Baltimore Sun op-ed about encouraging female engineers in 2015, to co-leading a diversity and inclusion working group, to volunteering for professional society committees. Together, she and Phillips regularly speak to university groups about improving inclusion in college STEM programs.

“There’s a reason I’m doing this,” she said. “There are so many women I can inspire or learn from. I think I have found where I can have a unique impact; I’ve been able to carve out a niche at APL.”

And she’s not planning to slow down any time soon. One of her personal goals is to focus on retaining women in STEM. “We’ve done a pretty good job with K-12 outreach, but the numbers don’t add up as well when you look at women in university programs and the workforce,” she said. “Getting people excited is good, but we want to ensure that we are recruiting them into inclusive academic and professional environments where they are able to maintain their enthusiasm and confidence.”

Receiving an award for being an advocate is a real honor, she added. “I have a reputation as someone who’s going to speak up and go fix something,” she said with a smile. “I guess I’m doing my best to embrace that personal brand.”

DeLaHunt accepted her award at the WE Local conference in Buffalo earlier this month.