My interest in the fantastic secrets that nature offers began when I looked out of our screen door on a summer night, as a very small child, and watched the light pattern cast by the moon on the door’s black wire screen. It wasn’t round, like the moon, but rectilinear, like the screen’s wires! This thoroughly puzzled me, and I pestered everyone I met to find out why this happened, why the moonlight spilled out over the screen in such an unaccountable pattern. None of my family being scientists, they could not really explain, but they tried – particularly my father. Mostly, they just said that I would understand when I got older.
Years after, I devoured books like those by Herbert S. Zim, in particular, the one about insects that recommended looking under backyard rocks with a hand-held magnifying glass. Ugh! That decided me: the biological sciences were not my destiny. Later, I had an exceptional high school physics teacher, who shared with me the wonders of the physical world, and how it could be understood with mathematics (yes, finally, even the light of the moon through a metal screen). Miss Sharon Fortna, who taught my 11th grade physics class in 1972, conveyed to our class not only science but also the important idea that “If you don’t understand something right away, don’t despair, just relax and let your brain work on it by itself.” This was a new concept for me, and a revelation when I found out that it actually worked.
In 1974, I chose St. John’s College in Annapolis for my undergraduate education. The College advertised that year that we would study mathematics from the beginning, and I wanted to understand the whole story of math, from Euclid to now, and why it was so essential to our civilization. The treatment of science (natural philosophy, as it was called there) kept me riveted. I could not master how to explain my interpretations of Baudelaire in a way that swayed anybody over to my view, but a math proof or science experiment? They were right or wrong, facts were facts, and there was no need for rhetoric. I was hooked.
Plasma Physics Research and Development
I left St. John’s with my B.A. in 1978, entered the College of William & Mary, and became the student of David C. Montgomery, an inspiring plasma physicist. He introduced me to the technical path of computational plasma physics, and he also enabled my interview with plasma physicists at the Naval Research Laboratory [NRL] after I received my Ph.D. in 1985. I was hired at NRL and spent many happy years focused on increasing fundamental understanding of laboratory, space, and astrophysical plasmas and related magnetohydrodynamic, gas dynamic, hydrodynamic, radiation, and atomic basic physics phenomena. I also applied my knowledge as a plasma physicist and high performance computing simulationist to the design, development, and interpretation of plasma-based experiments and systems in topical areas including: laser matter interactions and inertial confinement fusion, magnetically confined fusion energy, high energy density and warm dense matter laboratory experimentation and comparison with space and other plasmas observations, and directed energy. It was great fun.
Nearly fourteen years after I began work as a research physicist at NRL, I had a discussion with NRL Director of Research, Dr. Timothy Coffey. I confided to him that I was happy with spending my thinking hours on research, but that I was beginning to feel a pull towards something that would allow me to peg my professional contributions more directly, to society and to the Laboratory. He grinned a huge grin (unfathomable to me at the time), and within what seemed to be a matter of hours, had me assigned from my research bench in the NRL Plasma Physics Division to working for Dr. John Montgomery, Superintendent of the Tactical Electronic Warfare Division [TEWD], and partnering with the Head of the TEWD Vehicle Research Section, Richard Foch. John’s favorite maxim, “Learn by doing,” stood me in wonderfully good stead during the coming months!
Dr. Coffey – who often said that we don’t need many science managers, we just need a few really good ones – had with this reassignment to John Montgomery’s office placed my feet firmly and irrevocably on the path to Scientific Management (hence the grin: watch what you wish for!). It is this step in my science journey that I want to highlight in this essay. Like Dr. Coffey, I believe that we do not need a lot of science managers, but we do need a few, and I hope that of those who are reading here some will be among that number.
My Research as a Plasma Physicist UAV Developer, or How I Became a Science Manager
Soon after my arrival to TEWD in late 1999, Rich Foch and I collaborated to co-propose an over-the-hill small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle [UAV] reconnaissance initiative, Dragon Eye. In February 2000, the Office of Naval Research [ONR] committed funding to NRL for the whole of this three-year initiative. Rick and I began joint service as Dragon Eye’s Co-Principal Investigators for its first year. We assembled and led an NRL team to develop Dragon Eye and engage warfighter experimentation with our prototypes; we achieved the hosting of an Industry Day within one year after receipt of funding (on February 7, 2001, barely squeaking in under our self-imposed deadline); and, in 2008 Dragon Eye became an exhibit at the National Air & Space Museum as the first of a kind organic UAV that supported the warfighter directly (Read more here.)
The Dragon Eye success began with a technically credible White Paper on the topic of affordable, expendable sensor air platforms that was provided by TEWD to the Secretary of the Navy at his request, in April 1999. It continued with an act of entrepreneurship in December 1999, when TEWD researchers proactively arranged to demonstrate the NRL Micro Tactical Expendable [MITE] micro air vehicle in reconnaissance visual-imagery mode at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory [MCWL]. To our delight, during this open-air demonstration flight, the MCWL Commanding Officer personally stopped by and queried about the purchase of … say, 100 MITEs for the Marines. Over the next few weeks, Rick and I acted promptly to develop a concept for a small, robust over-the-hill reconnaissance nested system of inexpensive UAVs. We targeted the cost for the smaller of these UAVs to approximate that of an affordable mortar round, and we scoped the capability to be fully autopiloted for easy and practical warfighter operation. In early February 2000, Dr. Montgomery arranged for Rick to brief our concept to the MCWL Commanding Officer. On the spot, MCWL requested a proposal from TEWD for a stand-alone version of the smaller of the two UAVs, envisioned as back-packable, few-pound organic reconnaissance asset that – since the year 2000 was the Year of the Dragon – would be christened Dragon Eye. Just one week later, the Dragon Eye full request for funding was committed by ONR and MCWL to NRL, as the Secretary of the Navy’s Small UAV Initiative.
Our Dragon Eye proposed timeline and funding were reasonable, but tight. A major risk was the autopilot, which Rick and I estimated would be available within a six-month timeframe from proposal funding award. With a goal of bringing the small Dragon Eye capability to the warfighter as soon as possible, we recommended to proceed with this risk, a decision that turned out to be warranted. To develop our operational prototype on time and within the minimal budget, we were required to hold the entire NRL Dragon Eye multidivisional development team closely accountable for measurable high-quality, timely, and cost-effective output for all aspects of the program. This included technical development, prototype demonstration and delivery, programmatic review, incorporation of warfighter feedback, and an actionable path towards industrial manufacture.
Dragon Eye, subsequently built by industry to NRL design, provided considerable acknowledged in-theatre utility. For example, in a March 2007 Navy news story, Dragon Eye Flies High over 26th MEU, Kenyan Army, Marine “Cpl. Wallenstein said the Dragon Eye ‘...is invaluable. It gives the troops on the deck an advantage over the enemy.’ ... It can be programmed for almost any mission a unit may require” (Read more here). The Dragon Eye accomplishment confirms that forefront technical development for the warfighter is achievable upon demand within the framework of a world-class government civil service research laboratory. My never-stop, always climbing, whirlwind year as co-PI of the Dragon Eye program convinced me that the diverse and challenging landscape of science management is truly worth spending my heartbeats.
Do you want to become a successful science or engineering manager, too? The rules are simple. Be positive about your research, your colleagues, and your organization. Be creative and explore new ideas. Take risks. Build beneficial collaborations. Get visibility for your research. Pursue with a grand stubbornness and determination the work that you think is most important. Always tell the truth about your research, and be prompt with your reporting. Give credit where credit is due. Have a vision. Perhaps most essentially, never give up.
I am currently Superintendent of the NRL Space Science Division [SSD], leading a broad-spectrum research, development and experimentation program to study the atmospheres of the sun and the earth, the physics and properties of high energy space environments, and solar activity and its effects on the earth’s atmosphere, and to transition these capabilities to operational use. In SSD I share in the amazing opportunity to watch imagery from our instrument hardware on satellites such as Hinode, STEREO, SOHO, and Fermi open up the skies and show us a world of wonder – a world that can be discerned and explained by physics and mathematics – and, accordingly, by us. From my earliest professional scientific opportunities as a beginning Naval Research Laboratory federal researcher to my present role as the head of the SSD, I have defined and pursued collaborative world-leading research, and developed and built consensus toward visionary technical solutions for problems of international interest and national importance. It has been a true honor and a great pleasure, and a path tremendously worth taking!
From Meharchand, Rhiannon and Emma Ideal. Blazing the Trail: Essays by Leading Women in Science. Self-published with CreateSpace: 2013