HEADQUARTERS, NAVAL AIR SYSTEMS COMMAND, PATUXENT RIVER, Md.– Eight NAVAIR employees were recognized for being modern-day technology leaders and science spectrum trailblazers at the virtual Black Engineer of the Year Awards (BEYA) Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Global Competitiveness Conference Feb. 11-13.
NAVAIR has participated in BEYA for 15+ years, supporting a variety of programs, including mentoring, recruiting, workshops, and career development initiatives. Vice Adm. Dean Peters, NAVAIR commander, spoke at the 2021 Stars and Stripes Navy Tribute Hall Break-out on Feb. 12, acknowledging recruiting and retaining top STEM talent is especially important today.
“You are among the best in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math,” he said to awardees and participants. “You are innovators, inventors, and problem-solvers, critical thinkers. And your achievements to date are testimony to the transformative potential you represent.”
Science Spectrum Trailblazers
Three employees — Johnny Aquino, Obidon Bassinan, and Erika Howard — won the “Science Spectrum Trailblazers” Awards for shaping the future of engineering, science, and technology.
Aquino, an electronics engineer for the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, started his NAVAIR career in 2011. His first project was unprecedented and the largest in the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD). It involved the implementation of a Project 25 communication system that provides 100 square miles of indoor/outdoor coverage for the U.S. Capitol Police.
Since then, Aquino’s role as the mission systems test and airworthiness lead and avionics technical area expert has helped assure the F-35 is the most technologically advanced aircraft in the world. As Coolidge Hamlet Jr., branch head of the Avionics Systems Engineering Branch, wrote in a nomination letter for Aquino, “He has the reputation as a technical leader who overcomes challenges and delivers results.”
Bassinan is another technical leader; she manages 24 small business innovation research projects in the areas of fiber optics and photonics, a project she overtook in her third year as a member of NAVAIR’s Engineer and Scientist Developmental Program. While fiber optics was a new technical area for Bassinan, she has been successful with the help of a good mentor.
“When I took over my current job, I was a little nervous, because it was a new technical field for me, and I had never managed such a big portfolio before,” Bassinan explained. “My mentor, who happened to be my former supervisor and subject matter expert in fiber optics, helped and continues to help me become an expert in the fiber optic field and manage these projects.”
Bassinan said opportunities can come from anywhere and recommends employees find a mentor and seek help. “Be open-minded, and embrace any change that comes,” she said.
Howard, the MQ-25 lead systems engineer, also said her team and mentors played a key role in her success. Now a mentor and leader herself, she gives the following advice to those who wish to accomplish goals similar to hers: “Be prepared for meetings and use every opportunity to learn,” she said. “You don’t have to know everything, but you can always find the answer with help from others.”
Howard’s goals for the future are to continue building on her legacy while helping those around her. “I would like to be a branch head at the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division. I enjoy helping others obtain their goals,” she said. “Try your best every day, even when you feel like all of your effort is going unnoticed because someone is noticing!”
Modern Day Technology Leaders
Five employees — Gary Estep, Reginald Fagin, Devontae Mitchell, Rodney Pickett, and Jonny Rice — were recognized for being “Modern Day Technology Leaders” and for being bright people who are shaping the future of engineering, science, and technology.
Estep, a senior-level network engineer at NAWCAD in the DAiTA Group’s Resources and Operations Office, has supported what he calls several “paradigm-changing capabilities” throughout his 34-year career. Estep is well known as a technical expert in the area of Department of Defense military networks and network engineering and is identified as one of the best in his field. He credits his success to finding a mentor who encouraged him to apply for higher-level positions and job rotations outside of NAVAIR.
He suggests employees find a mentor and review their career goals annually. “Be proactive and participate in supporting initiatives within your organization that will help you grow,” he advised. “Look for rotation opportunities outside NAVAIR to help grow your experience and network.”
Fagin, a class desk engineer for the Marine Air-to-Ground Taskforce Unmanned Expeditionary Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Program, has employed model-based systems engineering concepts to drastically shorten the development time of unmanned aerial vehicles, providing a much-needed capability to the warfighter in a short amount of time.
“His ingenuity, technical acumen, and programmatic skills are a tremendous asset to the Navy,” wrote Rear Adm. Brian Corey in a nomination letter.
Mitchell was also praised for his technical skills and abilities. Despite being a two-year engineer, Mitchell has established himself as a leader and the go-to flight test engineer at Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Two Four (UX-24), the premier test squadron for Unmanned Systems across the Navy and Marine Corps.
“He has repeatedly demonstrated an innate ability to take a project and execute every aspect of it like a seasoned veteran,” wrote Branch Head Nathan Fielder in a nomination letter. Fielder also said Mitchell is setting the standard for flight test engineers at UX-24. “Mr. Mitchell’s expertise, positive demeanor, commitment to excellence, and clarity of vision have been vital to ensuring the success of multiple UX-24 test programs.”
Growing up, Pickett was inspired to pursue a STEM career after watching several engineering feats unfold, such as the space shuttle missions and the jet fighter competition between the YF-22 and the YF-23, he said. He later became the Next Generation Threat System Intelligence Center Integration Team Lead at NAVAIR, where he draws on the theories he learned from his degrees in computer science, and his understanding of radar systems and applied aerospace engineering, to provide exceptional engineering decisions for advancing naval aviation technology.
Pickett said his late mentor, a branch head at NAVAIR, epitomized a professional engineer and what the BEYA STEM Awards seek to honor.
“The most valued thing I learned from our interactions over the years is to explore and celebrate the interests and aptitudes that make us who we are,” he said. “Furthermore, we should not only look for diversity in our personnel but diversity within ourselves, by making short- and long-term goals that continually improve ourselves personally and professionally.”
Like Pickett, Rice dreamed of being a technology leader for as long as he can remember, aspiring to become an astronaut, excelling at science and math, and taking electronics apart to see how they worked.
He’s particularly proud of the support he’s provided to the DAIRCM project: capturing and processing data, writing programs, presenting results, and hauling equipment. In his spare time, he enjoys volunteering with a high school robotics team.
“Mr. Rice is a talented and dedicated engineer directly involved in the shaping of future electro-optical and infrared engineering capabilities for the Navy,” wrote Danny Vereen, Electronic Combat Stimulation Branch Head, in a nomination letter. “He provides technical leadership and engineering skills to promote engineering solutions within the engineering community.”