AAAS Lecture Series on Women in Science and Engineering

Essay: Lourdes Maurice

The history of communism in the Western Hemisphere and the example of how my mother dealt with that history shaped my engineering career. I was born in Havana, Cuba; two years after the revolution led by Fidel Castro. My mother was a socialite who suddenly found herself abandoned by her husband and responsible for two small children and two aging parents. The communists seized the considerable wealth amassed by her parents. My mom had never experienced any hardship or challenge beyond what to wear to the next party. Yet, somehow she found the strength of character to emigrate to Spain and eventually the United States, become proficient in the nascent field of computers, and provide my sister and I a top-notch education. She instilled in us a keen appreciation for knowledge and education, for these are assets that others cannot take away. She fostered my interest in math and science and ensured I attended university; I earned a degree in Chemical Engineering in 1983.

Upon graduation, I grew up as a professional in the United States Air Force laboratory environment. I gained experience planning and executing basic, exploratory, and advanced development propulsion science and technology programs, focusing on state-of-the-art aviation fuels and propulsion systems. Unfortunately, it was clear that, as a woman, my opportunities were limited. "Male, pale, and stale" characterized aerospace science and technology. I realized that I was going to have to be twice as good as the competition to get ahead. I pursued and earned a Master's degree in Aerospace Engineering at night. After earning my degree, I was up for a promotion in 1988; my skills and experience clearly put me at the top of the list. I was also two months pregnant and regrettably miscarried my baby. I was "lucky," my boss, Norm Hirsh, warned me that if the decision makers knew I had been pregnant, I would move to the bottom of the list. I came back to work the day after I miscarried, and somehow survived. I made it past the men in the "smoked filled room," I got my promotion. And the following year a beautiful baby entered my life!

In the spring of 1990, after my three month maternity leave, I had a new boss who promptly moved me to the "mommy track;" the projects I worked hard to establish were given to others and my responsibilities were diminished. Though discouraged, I fought back. I became active in outside committees and volunteered for high visibility extracurricular activities. I became very active in professional societies; I won national awards from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) in 1991 and 1992. I nurtured key contacts, and in 1993, the Air Force competitively selected me to attend the prestigious University of London's Imperial College, where I earned a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering. My scientific and research skills were honed while working at Imperial. During this time, I developed the first comprehensive detailed chemical kinetic model for aviation fuels comprising a full aromatic sub-model. This led to unprecedented studies of soot and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons pollutants formation chemistry in multi-component reacting flows. My accomplishments also included the first detailed modeling of the structure of higher-order hydrocarbon and multi-component diffusion flames, and development of an original technique to assess second ring formation pathways in reacting flows. The work resulted in several journal articles, conference papers, colloquia, and a Ph.D. dissertation. I was the first woman my research supervisor ever graduated -- he told me he had misgivings at first, as I had a 4 year old and my husband's job entailed extensive travel. Yet, I completed the program faster than any of his students before or since - he still asks if I have any sisters to send his way! And in 1997, the AIAA elected me an Associate Fellow, and Hispanic Engineer Magazine recognized my outstanding contribution to science and engineering.

Unfortunately, when I was back on Air Force laboratory soil, I floundered. Several women worked in my organization - but none had achieved senior status. At one meeting, a man with much lesser skills, but with "seniority," made me flip the viewgraphs while he presented my work! Then, a critical event happened. I met the only woman Chief Scientist in the Air Force Research Laboratory, Dr. Janet Fender. Janet was about my size (5'1", 100 lbs), beautiful, and no one took credit for her work! The glass ceiling in my mind shattered. For the first time, I truly could envision myself as a leader. And the future became what I imagined it to be! I leveraged my London connections and built on the international reputation of my research to quickly re-establish myself. Within a year, I earned the Meritorious Civilian Service Medal (in 1998), one of the highest awards my organization bestows, and became the first woman in the Air Force's Propulsion Directorate to achieve senior researcher status. I had a new assignment, with responsibility for directing all aspects of a new Air Force program to develop "smart" fuels, including in-house, contractual, and international elements. I led a twenty-person team seeking to solve "the world's greatest problems, from war to pollution." I initiated and directed research programs to study the analogies between soot emissions formation processes in fuel systems and combustion, and understand and exploit the effects of ionization on hydrocarbon combustion processes to enable hypersonic vehicles. We had successes. However, I personally wanted to grow beyond the boundaries of a technical professional.

In 1999, I volunteered for a two-year rotation at the Air Force's Secretariat, which exposed me to how policy influences strategic decision-making and how economic considerations influence National Security. I had oversight and responsibility for the two largest areas in the Air Force Science and Technology portfolio: Basic Research and Propulsion, which comprised one third of the $1.3B Air Force Science and Technology budget. During my "watch," my budget grew nearly 50%, and I established a national strategy for developing hypersonic vehicles (my efforts, chronicled on the cover of "Aviation Week," gave birth to the National Aerospace Initiative being jointly pursued by government, industry, and academia). I was selected Civilian of the Year for 2000 (from over 1000 competitors), was once more promoted (twice in two years!), and earned an opportunity to attend National Defense (NDU), where the nation trains senior military officers and civilians from over twenty agencies and twenty five countries for key strategic leadership positions (General Colin Powell is a graduate).

At NDU, I once again found myself a minority -- this time not as the only woman or Hispanic, but the only student with a research background! But, life has taught me how to hold my own. Throughout the curriculum, I emphasized strengthening the role of scientists and engineers in international relations and increasing the contribution of science and engineering research and education, both at the governmental and non-governmental levels, to the solution of national, regional, and global security and social problems. I earned the respect of warfighters, peacekeepers, and diplomats. My policy paper on international science and engineering collaboration earned a writing award. And I graduated in the top 10% of my class - rare for a researcher! I now run the Air Force's Office of Scientific Research Strategic Plans and Budget Division, where I have responsibility for crafting investment strategy for a $400 million program, and seek to revolutionize national security through technology.

Now, where do I go from here? One of the elements of the NDU curriculum was to drive introspection and self-assessment. Over the last year, I have examined my goals and values. I noted that four women sat at the table in Bonn, Germany to discuss the future of post-Taliban Afghanistan. One woman sat at the table in which the top strategy of the Air Force Research Laboratory is shaped. I do not believe that, today, the aerospace community or my laboratory intentionally exercise bias and intolerance. Rather, our leaders lack sensitivity to the benefits of multiple worldviews, and our organizations lack role models to attract a diverse workforce. I have spent most of my career trying to blend in. Foremost, I want others to see me as person. Yet, over the last ten months, I have come to understand that as a very rare minority, a Latina engineer, I have a part to play both as a role model to other women and minorities, and an example to my subordinates, peers, and superiors. I made the decision to actively seek promising individuals, at home and abroad, to mentor and develop.

I have visited 92 countries, and lived in four of them. I believe exposure to individuals from many nations and backgrounds is as important as the technical knowledge I have acquired through the years. And I know first hand the future is most often what we imagine it to be. Much like Janet Fender helped me imagine that I could be the leader in science and engineering that I am today, I want to help young women imagine themselves in that role. It is a perfect twist of fate that the AAAS Latin American Lecture Series on Women in Science and Engineering presents itself just as I decided to step forth and share my story. It will be an honor to represent AAAS, the NSF, and my country in Latin America!



 

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