AIAA Fosters Connection, Feedback and Innovation for Johns Hopkins APL’s Zittle

What is AIAA, and why should you care?

That happens to be the title of a talk that Kyle Zittle has twice helped organize at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, but it’s also a question he is eager to answer.

AIAA, or the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, is the world’s largest technical society dedicated to the aerospace profession, with more than 30,000 members worldwide. Zittle, supervisor of the Guidance and Control Systems Architecture Section in APL’s Air and Missile Defense Sector (AMDS), has been involved with the society since his student days at the University of Maryland. He was recently named the director of AIAA Region 1.

Zittle joined AIAA during his freshman year after the chapter chair spoke to his Intro to Aerospace class about the incentives: engaging technical speakers, access to the AIAA student lounge, and of course free pizza.

Being able to network with technical leaders in the field of aerospace engineering is a huge opportunity for students and early-career engineers, Zittle said. Beyond offering a chance to attend conferences and expand your network, participation in AIAA provides exposure to new ideas, gives people a chance to present and receive feedback on their technical work, and provides avenues to give back to the organization and future members.

“AIAA has student chapters and regional sections,” he said, “but it also has a number of technical, integration and outreach committees, so there is no shortage of ways to get involved.”

In the past several years, APL leaders have made it a strategic goal to increase professional society membership among technical staff members. That participation raises the Laboratory’s vantage point for spotting new technologies critical to APL’s continued strategic role in the broader science and technology community.

“AIAA continues to provide opportunities for us in the aerospace field to learn from others, be inspired by others and influence others,” said Dave Van Wie, the head of AMDS.

Coming Full Circle — and Creating New Opportunities

Zittle stayed involved in AIAA during graduate school, but when he came to work for APL as part of the two-year rotational Discovery Program, he switched to a professional membership — and quickly found himself getting involved again.

While waiting for a car transport at the 2018 AIAA SciTech conference, he started talking to another attendee who was also waiting. Like Zittle, that man was from Columbia, Maryland — and he turned out to be the father of one of Zittle’s fellow students at the University of Maryland. He asked if Zittle knew Robin Vaughan, an aerospace engineer in APL’s Space Exploration Sector, who was a previous chair of the AIAA Mid-Atlantic section and had been named its engineer of the year in 2004.

“I told him I not only know her — I work with her,” Zittle said. “We ended up sharing the car, and he encouraged me to talk to Robin because he wanted to see the Mid-Atlantic section reenergized.”

About a year later, Zittle connected with several APL colleagues and “started the process of reforming the section,” Zittle said.

With the help of an internal APL grant, they were able to resurrect not only the section but also an event that the section had held for many years: the Young Professionals, Students, and Educators (YPSE) Conference, billed as the Mid-Atlantic section’s preeminent event for young professionals, students and educators to share their work and connect with the broader aerospace industry.

APL leaders supported the idea of the conference in that first year, Zittle said. They understood the value of having a conference like that held at APL where young professionals at the Lab could get external exposure while also sharing some of APL’s work with the larger community.

Stepping Up to Leadership

Zittle was content to focus on the Mid-Atlantic section and the conference, and he wasn’t expecting to become a region director so soon. “I thought maybe I’d become a deputy director of the young professionals group before I was no longer a young professional,” he joked. But when the then-region director urged him to put his name in, he did.

Region 1 covers the northeast, and the position comes with a seat on the national board of directors. “That means we can really be involved with how AIAA shapes its policy,” Zittle said.

“General involvement in AIAA is about more than attending conferences and presenting papers: It has the potential to bring recognition to all of APL,” Zittle added. “Participation in the technical, integration and outreach committees provides a different way to access the thought leadership that is active in AIAA, while participation at the local section level provides additional ways to enhance the careers of current members, garner more interest and involvement in AIAA as a whole, and provide opportunities to shape the next generation of aerospace professionals.”

While Zittle’s leadership role is now one level up, the Mid-Atlantic section is already planning for the upcoming YPSE conference, which will be held Nov. 17-18 at APL’s Kossiakoff Center.