Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Women's History Month Blog Series (Part 4)

In recognition of Women's History Month, Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) presents a special blog series featuring candid responses from female ECBC employees and leaders on their experiences as females in the science and engineering fields. The third part in this blog series features Carrie Poore, an ECBC biologist, June Sellers, Acting Risk Manager, Surety Officer and Security Manager for ECBC and Wenona Vistoso, ECBC Program Assistant for Advanced Technology Demonstration Branch. Check back later this for the finale of this series.

Carrie Poore
Did you always want to work in the science/engineering field? Why did you choose to work for the Department of the Army?

I always knew, from when I was little in elementary school that I wanted to be in the science field. As I have gotten older, my scientific interests have changed from one area to another. Astronomy, genetics, biochemistry, cancer biology and microbiology have all held my attention at one point or another. I have been lucky to have had the positive influence of so many scientists/researchers/teachers that imparted their passions onto others. When I watched the faces of my mentors light up as they talked about the scientific possibilities and the never ending list of unanswered questions about their research in the laboratory, I couldn't help but get excited about becoming a true investigator trying to answer even just some of the scientific mysteries surrounding their particular research. I have worked in several labs throughout my career and that excitement has never wavered from project to project, whether it was cancer biology or bacterial pathogenesis.

I have always been an extremely patriotic person, wanting to do something for my country without any real notion of what that might be. When I was getting close to graduating with my doctorate, I had met a few researchers from ECBC at a conference and they had talked about their current work. Of course, the "Curious George" effect took over and I found my new niche in biodefense. Not only was I able to work in a profession that continually captivated me in an exciting laboratory setting, I was also able to give back to the country that had provided so much to me all my life. The decision was immediate and effortless.

Do you think the science/engineering fields have shifted in the last 10-20 years (or less) to allow for broader participation by women? If so, can you speak to that change from your personal experience?

I have seen a trend, both throughout my career in graduate school and the professional workforce, when the scientific community was predominantly composed of men from students to researchers/managers. This was evident in academia, private industry and the government.

However, it became more noticeable while I was in graduate school, that the numbers of female students compared to male students was increasing as the years went by. So much that there were more females enrolled in the graduate programs than males in the year I graduated. Slowly, the trend evidenced in the graduate student population will carry over into the senior positions when these women will take the jobs of principal investigators of laboratories and presidents and managers of scientific-based companies. I witnessed this phenomena first hand in my research lab at the University of Maryland, where we had an even ratio of men to women (total ~ 14 people) when I first started in the lab. There were 12 women and one man on my last day in the lab after graduation - a clear indication that there was a shift towards a more equal distribution between males and females in the scientific community. While the one male in the lab acknowledged this change in distribution, he still ran an exhaustive campaign to recruit more males back into the lab, with little success and excessive ribbing from his female coworkers (and to those that know me personally, you are correct in thinking that I distributed a significant chunk of the ribbing myself).

What are challenges you have encountered as a woman in the science/engineering fields? How did you overcome those challenges?

I can honestly say that I don't feel as if I have had challenges that were significantly different from those faced by the men from either the workforce or in the institutions where I received my schooling. Fortunately, we were all in it together. I think my greatest challenge was more from the outside community where most don't understand what I do and what it takes to do it. One example is my 90-year-old grandmother who says, "You worked until how late?" with a disproving tone that really said I should have been home to cook dinner. However, on the next breath I’ll overhear her on the phone with her pinochle friends saying that her granddaughter is a doctor and she just invented something amazing. So, I don't correct her on the dinner or the invention. In my mind, it all evens out.

What advice would you provide for female scientists/engineers in the Department of Defense who aspire to grow into leadership positions?

My advice would be to first figure out who you are and never forget it. Also, be persistent in all that you do. I often found that my drive and persistence pushed me out in front of those that were extremely intelligent but horribly lazy. I may not know something, but give me a second or two and I will figure it out somehow.

Be positive. Sometimes positivity is a hard pill for some to swallow, but I have found that more people than not respond to the positive. I work with those odds and thus, the smile on my face. Besides, it is a lot harder for someone to keep a frown on their face when you are smiling at them. Know that you are surrounded by every personality possible and that each one of those people thinks a certain way and wants something specific out of life. By uncovering the driving force behind individuals and trying to feed that force while you are accomplishing your own goals, you will create positive relationships where people want to help you as you help them. 

Pick your battles. Fight the fight that is important to you. You aren't going to win them all, so fight for the things about which you care most. And one of the most important things, I think, is to remember whom we are serving, the Warfighter. Not outside customers or companies, but the men and women in uniform. I think we all lose sight of that sometimes. I realize that this advice is somewhat generic, covering both men and women at ECBC, but relevant all the same. I have found that even though I make mistakes, when I live by the above statements, I end up successful. When others see these qualities in you, they tend to follow suit. And the leadership begins.

Carrie Poore is a biologist for Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC).

June Sellers
I decided to join the Army primarily because I wanted to leave home to go to college and the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship made that affordable. In 1977, I was one of very few women in the program but it quickly became a personal challenge for me to keep up with the guys. I must have done well because my record landed me an active duty slot in the Chemical Corps.

I initially intended to stay on active duty only for my four year commitment but for 21 years the Army kept offering me promotions and assignments that held my interest. I had the opportunity to lead a basic training company at the Chemical School, graduating chemical soldiers just in time for their deployment to Desert Storm/Desert Shield. The Army also sent me back to school for a second Masters degree (this one in Forensic Science) to prepare me to teach Chemistry to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy. I was then given the opportunity to work with young Chemical Lieutenants spread throughout units of the 4th Infantry Division and with soldiers in the 2nd Chemical Battalion. There is nothing more fulfilling than leading young soldiers, officers, and cadets, and working hard to train and mentor them to be the best they could be.

There were some challenges with being a woman in the Army. Obstacles that were created by policy were sometimes the most difficult to rationalize. For instance, I was told that as a Lieutenant I could not be a platoon leader in a Smoke Company, but I would be able to compete for command of a Smoke Company. The justification was that the Company Commander would be further from combat than a Platoon Leader. I found it incredible that the policy makers thought a Company Commander of any gender would not want to be near the troops. There has been recent news that policy about women in combat is changing and with the fluid nature of the battlefield it’s a change that is long overdue.

There was also the idiotic unwritten policy at the Department of Army that my official photo had to be taken in a skirt rather than in the pants authorized for wear with the uniform. These were the photos that were reviewed as part of a promotion packet. Of course, photos were full length at that time so legs were obviously important to promotion potential!

Over the years, I had a few bosses who had an interesting take on working with women. One senior officer met me on day one and his primary concern was that I knew how to make the coffee for the office. Another senior leader proudly expressed his satisfaction with the fact that he only had a small percentage of women on staff. On the whole, however, those individuals were few and far between and I worried less about the obstacles and challenges than about just being the best officer I could be, who could be counted on to do the best job possible.

June Sellers started her career with the active duty Army in 1984 after obtaining degrees in Chemistry and Zoology and then a Masters in Microbiology. She retired from active duty as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2005 and immediately started work as a government civilian, initially with the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command and then with the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC). She is currently serving as ECBC’s Acting Risk Manager, Surety Officer and Security Manager.

Wenona Vistoso
I was in one of the first female platoons to go through basic training at Ft. Jackson, SC in 1989. That is also where I saw my first female Commander outside of the nursing Corps. She was very impressive standing on the stage addressing a theater full of young men and women who were about to embark on one of the most challenging eight weeks of their lives. A few years after that, when I was stationed in Germany, I encountered my second female Company Commander. She was one of the first female Commanders of a transportation unit in Europe. I was honored to be in her command and delighted when she promoted me in the field during a Reforger exercise. At that time women were breaking into all areas of the military and taking up leadership positions.

During Desert Storm, female platoon leaders and commanders were leading platoons and entire commands. Now, I am proud to say that I work for an organization – the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) – that is led by the first female 4-Star General. How awesome is that. Throughout my military career I served with and have been mentored by outstanding female commanders and non-commissioned officers. I know that if you ask any of them, they would say they were just doing their job. But honestly, I believe we women have a lot of pride in our country; having the opportunity to serve and grow as a leader in the military is an honor, not just a job. Women have played a major role in the military for as long as I can remember, but I will never forget the first time I walked through the Pentagon hallway that depicted all of the female uniforms throughout the ages. It was then that I realized women had been fighting beside men on the battlefield since the 1970s.    

There are always challenges with any change to an institution as old as the military and creating a women friendly military was no different. This challenge started long before I joined. What I noted during my career was that over the years, women have come to be given equal promotions based on merit, provided equal living conditions, and education benefits. This did not happen overnight mind you, but I think it is something all military branches can be proud of.

Wars are not started on battlefields. I think most women are natural leaders and given the opportunity, they will play a major role in global peace and the continued evolution of real equality among all nations, religions, genders, and race.

Wenona Vistoso is the ECBC Program Assistant for the Advanced Technology Demonstration (ATD) Branch.

The content in this blog entry does not represent the views or beliefs of ECBC, its employees, its management or the federal government.

No comments:

Post a Comment