KSC chief, PDDNI among keynote speakers at WiSE Symposium

  • Published
  • By Susan A. Romano
  • AFTAC Public Affairs
The Air Force Technical Applications Center, headquartered at Patrick Space Force Base, Fla., hosted its annual Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) Symposium March 12-13 at the Space Coast Health Foundation in Brevard County.
Among the distinguished keynote speakers were Ms. Janet Petro, Director of Kennedy Space Center, and Dr. Stacey A. Dixon, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence and the No. 2 U.S. Intelligence Community official.
The WiSE Symposium, which began in 2014, is a diversity initiative to highlight and bring attention to the value that gender diversity brings to the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workforce.  It also focuses on encouraging mentorship and networking opportunities for those interested in pursuing and excelling in STEM careers.
This year’s theme, “Farther Together,” was chosen to showcase the power of diversity and teaming to meeting our nation’s highest science and technology goals.  The speakers and panelists are powerful leaders across academia, government, and industry and provided thoughts on the future of complex topics in nonproliferation, biotechnology, intelligence, and space defense and exploration. It also serves to inspire those in attendance seek out mentors, network professionals in a variety of STEM fields, and learn from leaders who have achieved success and are focused on future STEM needs.
NASA’s 11th Director in KSC’s storied history spoke about her journey from a student at Satellite High School here in Brevard County to graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, to ultimately becoming the center’s top leader driving KSC to meet NASA’s bold space exploration goals.
“I am one of five children, and my father instilled in me at a very young age the core sense of family, and that is one of the most important teams that you will ever be a part of,” Petro said.
In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed the law allowing women to be admitted to the all-male military colleges.  Petro relayed the story of how she ended up at West Point.
“I was a little intimidated by the idea of attending a military service academy, but I was surrounded by people who believed in me and encouraged me to pursue what even a year before would have seemed like an impossible dream.  My teachers, my coaches, and my parents really encouraged me to apply, and I was accepted into the second class of women at the U.S. Military Academy.”
She continued, “I’m telling you this because no one gets through an experience like that if you’re not able to work as a team and depend on those around you.  My fellow female classmates didn’t have many mentors to look up to during that time, but we were good team members and valued each other in every way. When we combine our best efforts with passion, perseverance, innovation, ingenuity, and experience of the best of us, nothing is impossible.”
Dixon, who holds both a doctorate and master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, talked about the advantage diversity of thought, background, and experiences gives the intelligence enterprise as they face a wide variety of threat spaces. She also spoke about different stops along her career path and what she learned from each experience.
“I’ll be honest with you, my career path makes sense when you look at it backwards,” she joked.  “I learned early on how important it is to collaborate with others, especially those ‘outside your circle,’ because more often than not someone else may have already solved a problem you’re experiencing. In this day and age, when resources are limited, it’s so important to learn to work together to find ways to succeed.”
When asked by an attendee how to best position themselves for jobs at the top levels, Dixon said, “Expose yourself to how your government agency or corporation works.  Learn about budgeting, hiring practices, oversight, operational capabilities, and even the considerable restraints your organization may be facing.”
Several hundred participants attended in person or live-streamed from across the nation – California, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and even some from as far as Germany. 
During the symposium’s Fireside Chat, Corey Hinderstein, the Department of Energy’s Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, discussed her role as the nonproliferation expert in arms control policy development and leader of the science and technology research enterprise aimed at detection and monitoring of foreign nuclear fuel cycle or weapon development.  She spoke candidly about her experience as a woman on the international stage for U.S. policy and United Nations efforts.
“I am so impressed with the foresight that WiSE brings to young women who are interested in STEM careers,” said Hinderstein.  “AFTAC’s message of ‘you can make a difference, and we need your voice’ is extremely important, especially when we’re talking about national security.  Symposiums like this that focus on science and technology, and how to become a leader in those fields, are great opportunities to illustrate how the youth of today can contribute to the world tomorrow.”
In addition to its keynote speakers, WiSE held two expert panel sessions and a tech talk with a local celebrity, Dr. Toby Daly-Engel, assistant professor at Florida Tech and director of the university’s Shark Conservation Lab.  She has appeared on the National Geographic Channel, Discovery, National Public Radio, and is frequently sought out for her vast knowledge on genomics and shark populations.
“This is the third time I’ve been asked to speak at WiSE, and each time it gets better,” Daly-Engel said.  “The presenters have been so inspiring, and I hope AFTAC will expand the audience in the future so more students and the general public who have an interest in STEM can attend.”
Daly-Engel added, “My message to the young women in attendance today is simple:  reach out to people you admire and respect.  Email them.  Text them.  Take a chance and reach out to someone you consider to be a role model.  More often than not, they’ll appreciate being asked, and they may even become a big influencer to you later in life.”
This year’s robust lineup of expert panel members included: Dr. Sharon Gandy, Joint National Coordinator for Global Health and Biosecurity; Dr. Tracey-Ann Wellington, Senior Advisor to the Undersecretary of Arms Control and International Security; Sarah Mineiro, Chief Executive Officer of Tanagra Enterprises; Kristin Houston, President of Space Propulsion and Power Systems at L3Harris; Brig. Gen. Jennifer Hammerstedt, Air Combat Command’s Director of Logistics, Engineering and Force Protection; Brig. Gen. Kristin Panzenhagen, Commander of Space Launch Delta 45 at Patrick SFB; Col. Kristen Thompson, former Commander of the 55th Wing at Offutt AFB, Neb., and current fellow at Council for Foreign Relations; Col. Angelina Maguinness, Commander of the 17th Training Wing at Goodfellow AFB, Texas; Dr. Karen Wahl, Division Director of Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Technologies at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; and Chief Master Sgt. Breana Oliver, Command Chief for the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, Beale AFB, Calif.
Since its inception, AFTAC’s WiSE Symposium has seen a variety of distinguished presenters, including two Secretaries of the Air Force; the first female 4-star general and first black 3-star general in the Air Force; an original Rosie the Riveter; thought leader Simon Sinek; the deputy director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency; Disney Imagineers; several NASA astronauts; multiple founders and CEOs; the former National Commander and Chief Executive Officer of Civil Air Patrol; and an introductory message from a former First Lady of the United States.
This year was no exception, according to AFTAC’s deputy chief scientist.
“Each year, we try to secure the ‘best of the best’, powerful representation of women leaders who offer candid mentorship and shared experiences. I’m proud that we can host a national level conference here for the Space Coast Community as this community continues to expand in technical depth and breadth in service to our nation,” said Dr. Theresa Watson.  “When you’re able to secure the caliber of people like Dr. Dixon, Ms. Petro, Ms. Hinderstein, Dr. Daly-Engel and our outstanding panel members, it illustrates the value of programs like WiSE, and how much importance senior leaders place on STEM initiatives, especially those aimed at women and minority groups.  We heard from all of our speakers the importance of dreaming big and supporting each other and our community as we go ‘Farther Together’. I want to thank them, as well as our team who put this event together.  I’m proud to be a part of WiSE, and I am confident we will continue to grow the program in order to encourage, recruit and retain a diverse and empowered STEM workforce focused on the future of our Air and Space Forces!”