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Extraordinary Women in STEM Inspire Others Through Success

Meet four amazing women from the Air Force Research Laboratory, who lead the discovery, development and delivery of warfighting technologies for the United States Air Force and Space Force. 
Extraordinary Women in STEM Inspire Others Through Success -

By: Whitney Wetsig, Air Force Research Laboratory Public Affairs

Meet four amazing women from the Air Force Research Laboratory, who lead the discovery, development and delivery of warfighting technologies for the United States Air Force and Space Force.   

Through careers in STEM, these women pursue a broad range of research and development efforts, work that ultimately provides Airmen and Guardians with new and innovative technologies that help keep the fight unfair. Read their stories and learn more about AFRL’s work in automatic collision avoidance technology, alternative navigation techniques, exploratory materials research and next-generation sequencing.

  •       Amy Burns, aerospace engineer
  •       Dr. Kathleen Dipple, navigation aiding research scientist
  •       Dr. Shanèe Pacley, materials scientist
  •       Dr. Clarise Starr, deputy division chief and principal scientist

Amy Burns, an aerospace engineer with AFRL’s Aerospace Systems Directorate at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, currently serves as a program manager and team lead for the Automatic Collision Avoidance Technology or ACAT initiative, guiding a team of engineers and computer scientists in developing aircraft systems and advancing related technologies. 

Growing up, Burns excelled in math and science and was fascinated with airplanes. During college, she interned with a contractor and developed path-finding algorithms for unmanned air vehicles. After graduating with degrees in aerospace engineering, she began her career in AFRL’s Air Vehicles Technology Assessment and Simulation Laboratory.

Under Burns’ guidance, a team of government civilians and contractor partners developed the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System or Auto GCAS, a software update for digital flight control computers that prevents controlled flight into terrain. Today, the software is on Block 40/50 F-16 aircraft and the F-35. Auto GCAS has saved the lives of 11 pilots and 10 jets since 2014. 

Using a digital map loaded on the aircraft, the system determines if a ground collision is imminent and overrides the plane’s control system. Initially designed for fighter aircraft, AFRL wants to launch the software in other types of aircraft to save lives and preserve combat assets.

Burns asserts that the best part of her job is helping to transition technology to the field.  

“It is very rewarding to see that something I worked on is making a difference and helping to save lives,” she said.   

Burns takes pride in the fact that her work will impact future generations.

“My hope is that it will be applied to many different aircraft and can continue to save lives.”

Burns’ team also developed the Automatic Air Collision Avoidance System, which prevents mid-air collisions. AFRL integrated the two systems, Auto GCAS and ACAS, into a single package, and the team is currently working to transition the Automatic Integrated Collision Avoidance System, which addresses the two highest reasons for fighter jet crashes: controlled flight into terrain and air-to-air collisions. 

Congressional report commends AFRL for life-saving collision avoidance technology

Dr. Kathleen Dipple, a navigation aiding research scientist with AFRL’s Munitions Directorate at Eglin AFB, Fla., uses various approaches including hardware and software, to solve navigation problems and expand on current capabilities. As a scientist who loves a challenge, she enjoys working in this interdisciplinary, ever-evolving field.

Dipple secured full-time work at AFRL after completing two internships: one with the AFRL Scholars Program as an undergrad and the second as a National Research Council Post-Doctoral Associate. She has a Ph.D. in nanoscale science and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.

To deliver solutions to warfighters, Dipple applies cutting-edge advances in technology to solve real-world problems. For the military, location and destination are critical points of information. In guided bombs, GPS in the tail kit locates the designated target. Long-range, precision-strike weapons rely on GPS to seek and destroy enemy ships.

While aircraft and munitions usually employ GPS, this type of navigation has its limitations. In fact, GPS signals are vulnerable to jamming, interference and even denial in some environments. Meanwhile, certain weather conditions often pose dangers since pilots are susceptible to spatial disorientation when flying into clouds or fog.

To address these limitations, Dipple’s work focuses on using signals from the surroundings to enable more reliable, secure navigation. Looking towards the future, she is excited to make an impact on capabilities and save lives. 

“I have a deep sense of purpose in my work every day, which is so rewarding,” she said.

Dipple’s work ultimately ensures that the Department of the Air Force is at the forefront in novel navigation technologies and always a step ahead of the adversaries.

“There are so many opportunities within AFRL to expand on your knowledge and your research capabilities,” she said. “I know that I will always be challenged, which I definitely need in a job to keep me happy and fulfilled.”      

Lab Life – Episode 47: Alternative Navigation & Nanoparticles

Dr. Shanèe Pacley, a materials scientist in AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, currently serves as the chief of the Exploratory Research Section in the Photonics Materials Branch where she supervises a team of 45 government civilians and contractors in applied research efforts. 

Recently, she completed a collocate assignment, helping to transition research from the lab to the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, the Air Force organization charged with managing weapon systems from inception to retirement. In this liaison role, she served as a subject matter expert for Nano electronics, linking the lab’s research efforts with long-term strategic priorities, such as road maps for power and electronics. Packey bridged the gap between research and application by interacting with program managers from across AFRL and helping to connect a variety of research thrusts with AFLCMC. 

Today, in addition to her leadership role in the lab, Pacley participates in various STEM outreach programs, serving as a mentor for student interns. She is currently the chair of the employee resource group Air Force Women in Science and Engineering or AFWISE.

Pacley earned degrees in materials science and engineering and focused her doctoral research on carbon nanopearls. She got her start at AFRL as an undergraduate co-op student.

Her early research in the lab, heavy on the electronics applications side, began with carbon nanotubes and carbon nanomaterials. Later in her career, she transitioned to growing 2D materials for electronic devices, using chemical vapor deposition techniques and pulse laser deposition to grow wide-band gap materials for electronic devices, in particular gallium oxide. In the lab, Pacley analyzed the electronic properties of those materials, identifying how best to integrate them into power devices for Air Force applications.

Lab Life – Episode 43: AFWISE: Air Force Women in Science and Engineering

Dr. Clarise Starr is a deputy division chief and principal scientist from the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, part of the AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing, headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. She is the U.S. Air Force’s leading subject matter expert in molecular microbiology, biosafety and advanced laboratory management. Starr serves as the director of the only research-specific Biosafety Level 3 Laboratory in the USAF, and she leads the Identification of Microbial Pathogens and Countermeasures/Therapeutics or IMPaCT portfolio.

Dr. Starr and her colleagues’ mission is to provide expertise and innovation in molecular technologies improving force health protection for Department of Defense personnel. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, she and her team have seen an uptick in workload. 

In the past 18 months, the Applied Technology and Genomics Research Lab has been working closely with USAFSAM’s Epidemiology Lab, the Air Force’s sole clinical reference laboratory for testing samples. This collaboration has enabled testing of more than 6,000 positive SARS-CoV-2 samples, work that involved identifying, sequencing and tracking variants during the pandemic. 

In her role as principal scientist, Starr designs a research portfolio that meets warfighter needs. The Applied Technology and Genomics Laboratory serves the Air Force and the Department of Defense by bringing cutting-edge science and technology to public health, infectious disease control, biosurveillance, biodefense, and precision medicine.

When Starr came to AFRL in 2009 she helped to establish the first genetics research lab to aid in pathogen detection/surveillance in the Air Force, eventually bringing the technology of next-generation sequencing “inside the fence.” 

Her work ultimately helps protect warfighters and supports them in achieving their missions by enabling faster response to infectious disease outbreaks and applying the latest technological advances toward detection, surveillance, and testing.

Today, she is passionate about bringing next-generation sequencing to the Air Force for continued surveillance and pandemic response, a tool she said, “has given researchers so many details about the [SARS-CoV-2] virus including its origins, its migration and new mutations.”

Today, Starr is also pursuing opportunities that address knowledge and capability gaps for infectious diseases beyond COVID-19. She is also striving to improve preparedness for future pandemics and working to establish a consortium of Air Force clinical and public health labs that could assist during future outbreaks.

AFRL Inspire 2017 – “Breaking the Biological Kill Chain”


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