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Jennifer Riley is a Directed Energy expert at Booz Allen Hamilton in Dahlgren, Virginia. She joined the Directed Energy team seven years ago as the first woman on the team. Jennifer brings a love of science and analytical prowess to her role in transforming ideas into technologies to address our clients most pressing needs.
What excites you about the work you’re doing in Directed Energy?
I’m working with incredibly smart people and such cool technology—lasers, high powered microwaves, and the electromagnetic railgun. In the big picture, it’s amazing to be advancing technology that can change the world. I’ve spent a lot of my time working in non-lethal directed energy, and I love the idea that we can use that technology to deescalate conflict and make war less deadly.
On a personal level, I love leading teams that are taking basic physics and moving it forward to a testable prototype, it’s like an engineering playground. There is nothing like the moment when something you made turns on and works how the science says it should.
For example, a small team of us had an idea for a device that could shut off small boats from another boat using high powered microwaves. Over the course of 18 months, we got to take this idea from a whiteboard concept to a prototype vessel stopper that we demonstrated live on the water. And it worked! That was an amazing experience.
The Dahlgren facility is very rural. How do you stay connected to the greater industry?
Dahlgren is geographically isolated, but this place has been at the forefront of Directed Energy since the beginning—brilliant scientists and engineers have worked here for decades, so staying connected to Directed Energy is organic because the world comes to Dahlgren. Staying connected to Booz Allen while working on-site used to be harder, but over the years, new tools for staying connected have been introduced and those of us working here have made concerted effort to keep our Booz Allen community strong.
What advice would you give to a female college freshman looking to pursue a career in STEM?
It’s easy to decide early on what your narrative is going to be, and then you close yourself off to other opportunities. If I had stuck to my original plans, I would not have ever known this field existed. My advice is to explore any opportunity that’s interesting to you. Take the “off the path” internship, the class outside your major, the job that you’re not sure you’re qualified for. Be open and explore all your interests, not just those that fit your first idea of where you’ll be in three, five, ten years.
What can industry do to keep women in STEM/engineering roles and inspire the next generation?
The only way to get more women in STEM is to have more women in STEM. We’re just reaching the point where there’s an ‘old girls network’ of women in science and engineering—meaning more women with successful long-term careers in these fields that are able to mentor the newest generation of women just getting started. That’s huge. And we’re gaining traction with benefits like maternity leave and flexible schedules that used to be rarer in STEM fields.
It’s important to have allies—both men and women. I’ve been privileged to work with male leaders who are incredible allies to women. I came to a team and industry where there weren’t many, if any women more senior than me in my discipline. But my leadership appreciated the challenges of women in isolated STEM fields, and they helped me navigate those challenges and find women mentors from other teams. These days, I have access to women in STEM across the firm at all levels, and have taken on that mentorship role for women entering the field as well.
Where do you see Booz Allen’s work with Directed Energy headed over the next 10 years?
We’ve taken a leading role in helping the government advance this technology. As the technology continues to mature, our role will continue to mature with it. Booz Allen has been doing Directed Energy work for over 20 years, from the initial physics analysis on paper, to developing directed energy systems and deploying with them. Over the next 10 years as these technologies become more widely used, Booz Allen will continue to evolve with it as the passionate leaders and well-rounded experts that are needed to realize and normalize the potential of Directed Energy.
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