2018 BEYA honorees reflect on their journeys

February 6, 2018 Arin Karimian

Twelve Leidos employees will be recognized at the 2018 Black Engineer of the Year (BEYA) STEM Conference in Washington, D.C. this week. The conference is an annual opportunity for professional training and networking with some of the top engineering employers, as well as a career fair for students seeking professions in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). We caught up with eight of our honorees ahead of the conference and they graciously shared their collective wisdom.

Clockwise from top left are Selassie Ametewee, Roy Jones Jr., Letrice Morgan, Theresa Nix, Lorenzo Wiggins, Thomas Walker III, Robin Peshak, and Adrian Montgomery. Jones will receive the Lester L. Lyles Legacy Award for his volunteer work while his colleagues will receive Modern Day Technology Leader Awards for their technological and/or scientific research contributions to government and private industry.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a STEM career?

Adrian: When my family purchased my TRS-80, which I used to write several programs with.

Lorenzo: Math and science were always my favorite subjects as a kid. When I was in 8th grade, I remember discussing computers and technology with a friend.  We came to the conclusion that careers in computers and technology were where our interests lay and where the best jobs would be in the near future. From that day on, I decided to pursue a career in computer science.

Robin: When I walked into a computer room and started learning my craft at the time as a computer operator. I wanted to know more and do more with the technology.

Roy: I've known I wanted to be a scientist since I was 5 and a physicist in particular since I was 13.

Selassie: It began in 5th grade when I knew I wanted to pursue a career in STEM (back then it was pure Science). It was around that time that science and math began to pique my interest, and I always looked forward to those particular subjects. This interest led to my desire to eventually pursue a career in STEM.

Theresa: The spark to pursue a STEM career actually began during my senior year in high school. My English teacher shared with our class the new wave of careers that would boom decades from that time. It’s humorous to me now, but she properly sounded out the entire acronym, syllable by syllable - Information Technology (IT), when today it’s commonly referred to as the “IT” field. She shared with us how important it was that we catch on to the new age of technology through the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Thomas: I knew I wanted to do something in the STEM career field when I was in high school. I excelled at math and science and I enjoyed drafting and calculus problem solving. I was accepted into an engineering program right out of high school and even though I didn't get my engineering degree, I continued my pursuit at a technical school.

Who or what is the biggest influence on your STEM career?

Adrian: The biggest influence on my career is the drive to continuously learn whatever to get the job done. If a new skill was required and could be learned, I purchased a book or read articles online to acquire the knowledge necessary to solve the problem.

Lorenzo: There have been many people that have influenced me on my journey, starting with my parents who gave me unquestioned love and support for whatever I wanted to pursue. I would say they have been my biggest influence, but there are others. A couple of my high school teachers, who encouraged me to take advanced mathematic courses. My high school basketball coach, who not only taught me how to play basketball, but made me go beyond what we thought I could do mentally and physically and taught me many of life’s lessons. Some of my military supervisors, who believed in me and allowed me to pursue a career in computer science, just to name a few.

Robin: David T. Kearns, former CEO and President of Xerox XDS (PARC) and XCS (Xerox Computer Services). David always told us to dream big, fly high and take on the seemingly impossible so that it was "the possible" for others.

Roy: My mother has been the biggest influence. She very deliberately stressed the value of education to me and my siblings, and she sparked my interest in STEM in particular — although by mistake, not by design. When I was a boy, I came down with a severe infection, and thus spent my fifth birthday in a hospital recuperating. My mother asked me what I wanted as a present, and I responded weakly: “toy monsters.” By that, I meant Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, etc.  What my mother got me instead was a bag of monstrous-looking toy plastic reptiles with names like “Diplodocus.” My initial thought was, “Grownups! You can’t trust them to get anything right!” and then finally, asking myself with intense curiosity, “What’s a Diplodocus?”

So that sparked my interest in science at 5. Once my mom saw that interest, she did everything to encourage it: weekly trips to the natural history museum or the planetarium, trips to the library, etc.

Selassie: I would credit my oldest brother as being the biggest influence on me when it came to pursuing a career in STEM. Having achieved his dream of becoming a dentist and seeing how dedicated he was to the process, I wanted to follow in his footsteps; albeit, in a different profession than his.

Theresa: 9/11 was the biggest influence on my STEM career. When 9/11 occurred, I was an English teacher at a high school. I remember going to the school counselor’s office to discuss business when we were all taken aback by this catastrophic event. It was then that I decided to pursue my first desire: IT. Of course, during this time, we were all filled with so many emotions, but the one that never left me was the overall pursuit to protect our country through science and technology; to catch on to the new age of technology and use it for the good of all people.

Thomas: The military. It started early in my military career when I was given the opportunity to transition our unit from typewriters to computers.

What advice do you have for young people interested in pursuing a STEM career?

Adrian: Never be satisfied with what you know today. Technology is always advancing; and those who stay still will eventually lose. The winners are those who are constantly acquiring knowledge and staying agile to adapt to the ever-changing technology market.

Letrice: Find a mentor and learn all that you can from that person; join organizations with other like-minded individuals with the same interests. Study hard, stay on top of "what's new." Don't be afraid of change or challenges; do your best and push to achieve what's next for you. Use your mistakes as a lesson-learned and grow from them.

Lorenzo: I would definitely say go for it. Take lots of math, science and computer classes. If you enjoy studying and learning these three subjects, then your chance of successfully pursuing a STEM career is very good. Don’t be afraid to take risks and work hard at whatever you choose to do. No one has ever failed because they worked hard; plenty of people have failed because they didn’t work hard enough.

Robin: Embrace and understand the history of technology as it is the root of where we are today. We sprang out of the "loins" of vacuum tubes, if you will, and the rich history of that is the foundation for our technology today. Lots of hard work, sacrifice and "magic."

Roy: One should learn how to write well. Communicating clearly and succinctly is crucial for scientists and engineers. Many young people think that because one plans to become a scientist or engineer, learning how to write is unimportant. That is false. If you can't write up your STEM results clearly and convincingly, people often won't even read your results - much less be convinced by them.

My second piece of advice: learn as much mathematics as you can.

Selassie: My advice for young people (and anyone) interested in pursuing a STEM career is to not settle. They must be willing to evolve and adapt to the ever-changing information technology landscape. I would also advise them to develop interest in math/calculus and science because these subjects dovetail into technology and engineering. A solid foundation in any of these subjects can go a long way in helping develop a career path in STEM.

Theresa: “Good, better, best, never let it rest; until your good becomes your better and your better becomes your best.” These are words by which I have lived since I was in elementary school. My English teacher, another inspiration in my life, would always end her class with this phrase. It wasn’t until I was much older and out of college that I truly realized how my best effort paved a path of opportunity and progression for me.

Thomas: Learn it. In my opinion it is a very rewarding career field with many opportunities.

Why is it important to build STEM skills at a young age, and how can we assist and encourage those efforts? Can you tell us about any activities/organizations you participate in/with or recommend?

Robin: STEM skills can be applied to other areas outside of traditional technology, such as agriculture. A CNC Operator is a fantastic role for students who are on a non-academic or technology educational track and it introduces the student to an automation method that is used in manufacturing that supports agriculture. CNC stands for computer numerical control. Farms have equipment that needs to be repaired or they need new items to perform tasks, and these items can be designed and fabricated locally, often in small towns. A CNC machine eliminates the use of manual processes and instead uses computerized control motors that define the location of the tool head (such as a mill, lathe, plasma cutter, water jet cutter, etc.) in a three-dimensional space, based upon an input file that specifies the actions to be taken by the tool. The input file, which is made up of coordinates representing the 3-axis dimensions that the cutting head needs to move. In a large CNC shop, this is typically created by a CAD (computer aided design) program. This method of automation allows for precise tolerances, near-perfect copies, and extremely quick design and manufacturing and/or repair of task specific farm equipment.

My husband and I are working closely with the CNC teacher at Smithville High School in Smithville, Texas. Smithville is a small town with a robust farming community 40 miles east of Austin. We have partnered with the agriculture teacher on enhancements to his CNC set-up through the update and installation of a 3-axis cutting head, and updates to the "burn table" where the plasma head cuts the metal into specific shapes as specified by the CAD programming developed to meet the instructors' requirements. This helped support class course work for the fall 2017 and spring 2018 semesters.

Roy: STEM learning occurs in stages, like a layering process, in which new knowledge and skills are built on the knowledge and skills previously acquired. So not building STEM skills early is like not having a foundation for one’s house: any structure subsequently built will be weak, not sturdy.

One way for kids to build that educational foundation is to participate in an afterschool program. I volunteer for an afterschool tutoring and mentoring program called Horton’s Kids, which serves students in the Anacostia section of Washington, DC.  I’ve volunteered for Horton’s Kids for 17 years – 14 of those years working with the same student. She was a 5-year old kindergartner when we started. She’s now a 19-year-old college freshman studying engineering at the University of Rochester, with a four-year full tuition scholarship.

I also serve on the Advisory Board of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, a school in Washington that has a STEM-enhanced curriculum. I previously served 11 years on the Board of Trustees at Haynes.

Theresa: I would encourage all young people to start as early as possible, building their STEM skills to determine their interests, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses. I never would have imagined that I’d be in the field. Although I got a late start, I can’t help but wish I had taken on and honed in on my STEM skills at an early age. What I have learned over the years is that there is a wealth of resources and tools amongst us that will aid in our journey. Programs such as early college high school (ECHS), BEYA, and internships also continue to be available for us.

What do you enjoy most about your job here?

Adrian: The ability to solve problems for my customers, both internally and externally.

Letrice: I enjoy problem-solving and working towards implementing improvements. This takes communication and coordination which allows me to interact with many people daily, which I enjoy. Although I am in a management role, I am constantly learning something new from my team and those around me.

Lorenzo: I enjoy learning new things, figuring out how they work, integrating the functionality into existing systems and the satisfaction of seeing it all come together.

Robin: We have fun while doing the serious work to support our VA customer. I am very blessed to have great colleagues here at Leidos who have tremendous energy and practice "team ownership."

Roy: Helping my co-workers understand the physics and math behind what they do. Answering physics and math questions is the most fun part of my job.

Selassie: What I love most about my job is knowing that the work that I put into building a system and network tunnel is being used in the "real" world by the doctors and clinicians who help facilitate treatments for our veterans. This is very gratifying because it allows me the opportunity to use my knowledge and talents to serve our veterans and their families, considering how much they have sacrificed for our freedom and peace at home and abroad.

Theresa: I enjoy the never-ending challenges that come along with my job. Although roadmaps and plans are made in the world of IT, one never knows what may surface. The challenge of figuring out a problem or issue can be one of the most rewarding aspects of this career.

Thomas: Working with our Mission Services Team of System Engineers at NORAD and USNORTHCOM, who on a regular basis are introducing new ideas, technologies and solving issues associated with them.  Also being able to train new technologies that enhance our country’s situational awareness.

What was the best career decision you ever made?

Adrian: Giving up my position of being a principle software developer on ACTUV to focus on becoming a program manager.

Letrice: Accepting the position that initially brought me into Leidos (which was SAIC at the time). The position I accepted was not the focus of my job search at the time; it was a new direction. I like that it offered new challenges and opportunities to learn but I could still leverage my prior experience. That decision became the stepping stone to get me where I am today. I was given opportunities, I asked for opportunities and I had others around me who believed in me and nurtured my growth. I know there is still more to come!

Lorenzo: When I was in the Navy, I was up for a new job assignment, but instead of applying for a new assignment by calling my detailer, I had heard there were Navy detailers visiting the base I was stationed at, so I decided to visit in-person. The detailer I visited with informed me of a job assignment available at the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Command in Washington D.C. I was given the assignment and it’s where I got a chance to write computer code working with civilians — I was also allowed to take courses at the University of Maryland. My decision to personally visit the detailer that day changed my whole life.

Robin: Joining the Systems Made Simple (SMS) team in 2014 instead of taking a Level 8 role at GM in their Austin Technology Center. This career decision provided me the opportunity to become a member of the Leidos team, which is very important to me because I get to serve our veterans, which includes my husband (Vietnam, U.S. Navy) and my 91-year "young" dad who proudly served in WWII, Korea, as an early Vietnam War Advisor, and finished out his distinguished U.S. Army career handling in-country training for arriving troops in Germany.

Roy: Getting a PhD in physics. It’s not the degree itself, but the skills and discipline I had to develop to earn the degree. I use those skills and rely on that discipline all the time in my career.

Selassie: The best career decision I made was to obtain my Cisco certifications: CCNA, CCNP, CCIE (in progress); aside from the masters' degrees I pursued during the course of my career. I believe it increased my versatility in the technology industry and added to my knowledge and expertise.

Theresa: The best career decision I have ever made is to pursue my career in the information technology/engineering arena.

Thomas: Joining the military and being involved in my passion, training.


Arin Karimian

Arin is the Corporate Content Lead at Leidos. He creates and curates content across a wide range of topics -- familiar territory for someone who's worked in banking, health care, media, and the non-profit space.

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