Wilson, Chen Honored With Women of Color Awards

Two staff members from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, were recognized with 2023 Women of Color STEM awards. The annual awards honor promising innovators and inventors who have made an impact in their respective disciplines while also demonstrating a commitment to mentoring and encouraging women in STEM fields.

Michelle Chen, an assistant group supervisor and project manager in APL’s Space Exploration Sector, received the Outstanding Technical Contribution award, which honors individuals performing technological functions who have designed, developed, managed or assisted in the development of a product, service, system or intellectual property that is a substantial achievement in the field.

Chen played a pivotal role on NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, which successfully demonstrated asteroid deflection technology and bolstered humanity’s ability to defend our planet. Chen’s innovative thinking led her team to develop a prototype capability that formed the basis for the autonomous guidance system deployed on DART.

Known as Small-body Maneuvering Autonomous Real Time Navigation (SMART Nav), the set of algorithms, with the rest of DART’s guidance and navigation system, took charge during the mission’s critical terminal phase, independently finding target asteroid Dimorphos and guiding the spacecraft into it for a direct hit. SMART Nav utilized onboard imagery to identify the right target and make crucial decisions on thruster firing and coasting, while considering the spacecraft’s fuel levels and remaining distance from the asteroid. The technology’s efficiency and precision were crucial to DART’s success.

Chen’s critical contributions to the DART mission began as an Independent Research and Development (IRAD) effort. She and her team took the concept of autonomous navigation from algorithm design to prototype software, which ultimately laid the foundation for DART’s autonomous terminal phase.

“To take something from an [IRAD] effort to the mission was huge,” said Chen, adding that, on the evening of DART’s impact, “I went from being nervous to sitting back and enjoying the ride, then celebrating. It was incredible to be at the Lab and be a part of what we did, and sharing that with the world in real time was just amazing.”

Chen said she read the nomination text when she learned about the award, and got teary-eyed. “I have spent my entire career ensuring I operate how I would want to be treated,” she said, “and to hear others say that what I have done was seen and appreciated that way is special.”

Shelby Wilson, an applied mathematician in APL’s Asymmetric Operations Sector, received the Technology Rising Star award, which honors women with 21 or fewer years of experience who are helping to share technology for the future.

Wilson was honored for her outstanding technical contributions toward recruiting and mentoring people of color in STEM. Deeply committed to supporting minorities in pursuit of mathematical careers, she co-founded multiple service organizations, including Mathematically Gifted and Black and CodeHouse. Mathematically Gifted and Black is a website that spotlights the stories of Black researchers during Black History Month, sharing their personal experiences in a way that is relatable and inspiring. Wilson’s work on the website has elevated her and her team’s efforts to a larger community of mathematicians and students pursuing mathematical sciences.

Wilson is also a co-founder of and board of directors member for CodeHouse, a nonprofit focused on cultivating a pipeline between students of color and industry-leading technology companies. CodeHouse was started with, and is now run by, her former students at Morehouse College.

Wilson has also engaged in diversity recruiting efforts at the Laboratory as part of the APL Technology Leaders and Scholars (ATLAS) program, which helps foster positive internship experiences for both technical and professional growth for students from minority-serving institutions.

Wilson joined APL in 2020. That same year, she found herself serving the nation and the world through pandemic response efforts, providing information about pandemic trends to global decision-makers. She led multiple pandemic modeling teams, including a collaboration with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which published a COVID model designed for countries with ongoing humanitarian crises, as well as efforts with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“My COVID-19 response work I feel will be the highlight of my career. I hope another pandemic never happens, but to be involved in this effort was something I trained for my whole career and it was huge,” acknowledged Wilson.

“This award means a lot and really signifies that APL values my work as well as diversity and representing women minorities in STEM — all things that mean so much to me. This honor is what I stand for and I’m really proud of this recognition. I try to find areas where I can make an impact, and this has been my way of sitting on the shoulders of giants,” Wilson said.

Both women were honored at the Women of Color STEM Conference awards ceremony on Saturday, Oct. 14.