ARL taps ECBC senior quality engineer for candid advice during all-girls workshop
December 17, 2012
- ARL sponsors, for a second year, workshop for high schools interested in STEM education, careers
- ECBC senior quality engineer faces down dyslexia, achieves career success
- Workshop designed to increase girls' interest in STEM fields
Silence fell over a conference room filled with nearly 50 high school students – all girls – as they listened intently to Gyleen Fitzgerald, the first African American female engineer at what's now the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC). Fitzgerald was the only speaker at the day's event that didn't rely on the obligatory PowerPoint slides that dominate most every professional conference.
"I couldn't read it anyway," she remarked to a noticeably moved audience.
Fitzgerald was one of five speakers at Battelle Memorial Institute in Aberdeen who addressed future women in science and engineering at a Dec. 4, all-day workshop created in 2011 by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory's (ARL's) Ms. Melanie Will-Cole.
She told juniors and seniors from Aberdeen High School – about half of them from its Science and Math Academy(STEM) – that being diagnosed with dyslexia right before entering college meant she had to quickly learn to optimize her strengths in order to excel in her education and career.
Her candid remarks were part of the Young Women in Science and Engineering College and Career Workshop, which was created to bring together women – diverse in science, technology, engineering and math fields as well as ethnicity – in a candid discussion with teenage girls to confront trends of women in STEM and help them navigate obstacles and opportunities in college and careers, said Will-Cole, an ARL Fellow and senior researcher.
"I don't know my multiplication table beyond six unless I make the whole table. I transform both numbers and letters. Teachers bled all over my papers because I can't spell. But there was one woman who believed I could be a chemical engineer and I stand here today based on her faith (in me)," Fitzgerald reminisced.
Fitzgerald started sewing at age four, a skill she picked up in Taiwan and Japan from her overseas nanny. She set her career goals on becoming a fashion designer and later enrolled in Drexel University to study at the Nesbitt School of Design. A brief discussion with an advisor unveiled that, at the time, fashion designers weren't earning college degrees so to put her time and tuition to good use, she was encouraged to pursue engineering. Just above a whisper, she told the advisor that she did well in chemistry in a Philadelphia high school and therefore, Fitzgerald's undergraduate major was switched to chemical engineering.
"I always had a love for touching things, being tactile. I loved to deconstruct things and learn how things were constructed," she said.
She took advantage of a couple of cooperative education assignments through Drexel, one at BP Oil Company that required her to climb up tankers in the cold and rain to get various readings. She said at that point, she realized, "This is not my dream."
She moved to a research and development position, in a laboratory environment, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a position she loved because she could readily identify with how her role in the operation would make an impact. "I like the topic: food," humored the miniature dynamo, who credits the "incredible tenacity of a fearless mother" with much of her success.
Like all of the workshop speakers, Fitzgerald integrated personal backstories into her 'talk,' including falling in love with a man who lived and worked nearly 70 miles north. She eyeballed a position at the ECBC – a halfway point for the couple.
That position placed her in what she called, at the time, a dominant male environment who often trivialized her contributions in senior meetings and in research.
Her passion for sewing upstaged machismo overtures.
"So here I am working in chembio, and warfighters have to wear chemsuits. What's that? It's fabric," she smiled cunningly. "I know fabric!"
Today, she is ECBC's senior quality engineer. Her first assignment was with Physical Protection Directorate in 1981, supporting the production and fielding of Modular Collective Protective Systems for Pershing and TACFIRE Communication Shelters (two (ACAT) I binary missile programs) as a production engineer.
From 1982 to 2005, she held a leadership role supporting 13 chemical biological acquisition programs. In 1991, she was selected as Edgewood Research, Development and Engineering Center (ERDEC) Engineer of the Year and was nominated for Supervisor/Manager of the year for 1999. ERDEC is the predecessor organization to ECBC.
Fitzgerald received her first patent in 2005 as the co-inventor of sorbent powder. This discovery was incorporated in 1999 as a product improvement to the M295 Individual Equipment Decon Kit saving the Government $10 million each year in procurement cost; and a replacement of the M11 and the M13 Decon Aparatus Systems in 2003 with the M100 Sorbent Decontamination System, resulting in a $2.7 billion life cycle cost savings.
In 11 months, she will retire after serving 32 years there. She plans to travel the world with her new husband, and continue promoting her expertise in quilting.
Her best advice for attendees: "Don't be afraid to tap into the softer, more artistic sides that interests you."
Other workshop speakers included Dr. Jeannie Y. Chun, a pediatric surgeon and Assistant Professor, Department of Surgery University of Maryland School of Medicine; Ms. Sila Cansever, director of research and development at Ken's Food, Inc.; Dr. Leslie Lamberson, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The John Hopkins University and Assistant Professor at Drexel University and Monica Malhotra is a Principal Research Scientist in the National Security Global Business Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense Division at Battelle Memorial Institute.