VICKSBURG, Miss.— Six researchers from the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) were chosen to receive top honors at the 2021 Black Engineer of the Year Awards (BEYA), an event held virtually Feb. 13.
Quincy Alexander, Brandy Diggs-McGee, Vernessa Noye, Ryan Delts, DeAnna Dixon and Willie Brown were recognized at the ceremony held during the annual BEYA conference, an event that – for the past 35 years – has provided professional development, networking opportunities and other resources aimed at empowering minorities. The awards recognize African-American scientists and engineers across the nation who are shaping the future of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), as well as promoting diversity and inclusion in the STEM pipeline.
“I am constantly amazed at the brilliance and heart of the ERDC team,” said Dr. David Pittman, ERDC director. “Their work and dedication for their communities, ERDC and the nation speaks volumes to their caliber and character. I could not be more proud of these six exemplary researchers.”
Alexander, who leads the Sensor Integration Branch of the Information Technology Laboratory (ITL), took home the Dave Barclay Affirmative Action in Government Award.
“Leadership choosing to nominate me for the award really meant a lot, because the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work that I have been involved in within ERDC and outside of ERDC has mostly been a labor of love,” Alexander said. “The award validated that the work that I am so passionate about is really making a difference for others, and that is the part that is most important to me.”
About a year ago, Alexander approached ITL leadership with DEI concepts and common barriers to inclusion in the workplace. ITL’s Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Awareness (IDEA) Council was then stood up with the goal of enhancing the ITL experience for everyone.
“If I can successfully help create an environment where everyone can thrive, then the results would be more rewarding than any award,” Alexander said. “However, at the same time, I felt like I did not deserve the award yet because there is still so much more work in this area to do.”
And for Alexander, that work means doing his part to lead the way for those interested in following in his footsteps.
“For young Black students interested in STEM, I would encourage them to find a solid mentor and try to develop a strong support system,” he said. “More importantly, I would recommend universities put more effort into understanding how to create an environment where all students can flourish and not be burdened by social barriers. One study shows that around 40 percent of Black STEM students change majors before earning a degree and another 26 percent leave college altogether, and the cause is mostly attributed to feelings of exclusion and discrimination, as social factors drive the change.”
Diggs-McGee, a research mechanical engineer at the Construction Research and Engineering Laboratory (CERL), was a winner of the 2021 Most Promising Engineer in Government Award. At CERL, she works to advance Large-Scale Additive Construction, leading to a more efficient process for energy and operation.
Her love of STEM started when she was a child. The daughter of an electrical engineer, she found herself always taking apart family electronics and putting them back together. By the time she was in high school, she knew without a doubt that she wanted to be an engineer.
“My advice for a young minority is get involved early, ask questions, stay intrigued, set goals and never stop moving,” Diggs-McGee said. “Find something that piques their interest and dedicate time to learn that one thing and try their best to master it. It will teach patience. There is nothing wrong with investing in yourself, even if it doesn’t fit in a social norm.”
When she learned that she had been chosen for the BEYA honor, Diggs-McGee felt humbled.
“I felt extremely honored to represent ERDC and others who look like me,” she said. “I was amazed that I was chosen, especially since there are so many talented individuals in the world. I am humbled, proud and I thank everyone for recognizing something that I enjoy doing every day.
Noye, who won the 2021 Science Spectrum Trailblazer Award, is a research computer scientist in ITL. Throughout her 20 years in the laboratory, she has served in a variety of positions, including software developer, technical project manager, human capital and contracts advocate and Leadership Development Program coordinator.
Currently, Noye serves as chief of the Software Engineering and Evaluation Branch, where she supervises 30 computer scientists and oversees an annual budget of approximately $8.1 million. Her expertise has been valuable at the ERDC in many areas, from disaster relief to asset management.
“I feel humbled to be recognized by this organization as a STEM Leader,” Noye said. “While BEYA does some outstanding things, and I encourage all people to attend one or two of their conferences, it is being nominated by the Corps of Engineers and ITL that provides the most honor. To know that they recognize and appreciate my efforts with the Corps brings great reward to me.”
As someone who first became interested in STEM in ninth grade, Noye took as many math and computer classes as possible to give herself a leg up for college, and she would encourage today’s youth to do the same.
“There are so many opportunities, and all are exciting areas, from software development to cybersecurity to hydraulics engineering. The possibilities are endless, and there is a niche for most everyone,” Noye said. “I won’t lie, the road is not easy and it’s sometimes lonely. You may not always see someone who looks like you, but don’t let that deter you. There are still trails to be blazed so why not you? I would encourage them with this quote from former President Barack Obama: ‘If you’re walking down the right path, and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.’”
Delts, a computer scientist/database developer at the Geospatial Research Laboratory (GRL), was named a BEYA 2021 Modern-Day Technology Leader. During his five years at ERDC, he has worked to develop configuration management strategies for Map-Base Planning Services (MBPS).
“To be chosen as a recipient of the 2021 Modern Technology Leader Award is a great honor and acknowledgment of the contributions I have made in advancing my team's use of new and existing technologies to solve problems facing the ERDC and the Army mission,” Delts said. “This award is shared with the entire MBPS Management team, because without their support and willingness to adapt existing technology or pioneer new technology solutions, I could have never achieved this award for leading our modernization efforts.”
Dixon, also named a BEYA Modern-Day Technology Leader, works as a civil engineer in ITL, where she models and computationally analyzes engineering structures, but also spends time mentoring youth interested in STEM. As a high-school student, she attended a STEM summer camp that sparked her interest in her current career, and because of that experience, she has spent the past 10 years working with more than 100 students and promoting STEM in her local community.
“I feel I have so much to offer in the world of STEM. Receiving this award made me feel that I was heading in the right direction and my contributions mattered,” Dixon said. “Also, the award solidified that an African-American woman can excel in a male-dominated field.”
For youth interested in a career like Dixon’s, she had some words of advice.
“Start early. Take all of the necessary advanced math and science courses that are offered in school to get a great foundation. Attend summer camps to get exposure and network,” Dixon said. “Lastly, maintain focus, hard work and dedication, and your future will be bright.”
Brown, a research civil engineer in ITL’s Institute for Systems Engineering Research, was also named a Modern-Day Technology Leader. At work, he focuses on several systems engineering projects and works with stakeholders across the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Strategic Command, Defense Logistics Agency and Army Environmental Command. After turning off his computer at the end of the workday, Brown uses his spare time to mentor high-school students, serve the homeless community and make upgrades and repairs to a local elementary school in Jackson, Mississippi.
“I was honored and surprised to receive this award,” Brown said. “I work with such talented people, and so much of our work is team-oriented. I just don’t expect to receive any sort of individual awards, but I’m thankful to have been recognized.”
As a student who was always good at math, others encouraged Brown to pursue a STEM career, and in college, he chose engineering.
“I’d say that a student should work hard,” Brown said, when asked what advice he’d give to youth interested in STEM. “Take opportunities as they come; you never know where they could take you. Find a field you enjoy, and pursue it with an open mind.”