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NEWS | July 12, 2021

NSWC Dahlgren Division Scientist Melissa Olson Phipps Discusses Charting Her Unexpected Career Path

By NSWCDD Corporate Communications

What did you want to be when you grew up? This question resonates with many and brings back to mind early childhood career ambitions. For Naval Lead Scientist Melissa Olson Phipps, her answer was to become a doctor. She began charting a course to pursue that dream during her early years in high school. As a student at Hood College, Olson laid the groundwork to study medicine and took courses in pre-medicine and mathematics.

During the summer of her junior year at Hood, an opportunity to intern for the Gun and Electric Weapon Systems Department at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) presented itself. Intrigued, Olson Phipps considered the internship and discovered a different career path for her future. 

It was during her time as an intern at Dahlgren that Olson Phipps became inspired to change direction and follow a pathway toward directed energy technology. “When I joined Dahlgren, the directed energy program was becoming more established though the team was still relatively small. I came in at a time when the team had great ideas and were exploring innovative testing and evaluation methods to prove the utility of directed energy,” she said. “I became involved with the laser testing and data analysis processes and just knew I wanted to be part of this cutting edge technology.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Hood, Olson Phipps proceeded to earn her master’s in engineering management, modeling and simulation from Old Dominion University.

Olson’s lifelong passion for science and mathematics - as well as wanting to contribute her expertise and skillset in the field - led to her impressive career at NSWCDD. “I always had a strong talent for mathematics and wanted to work in a career where I could challenge myself and really enjoy what I do,” said Olson.

She joined the NSWCDD workforce part-time in 2006 as part of the laser lethality team while still attending college and continued to work in the field after graduating from Hood. While pursuing her master’s degree, Olson continued expanding her work experience and joined the Navy Laser Weapon System (LaWS) program.

Early in her career at Dahlgren, Olson became a mentor herself and assisted summer interns in exploring their own interests and encouraged hands-on interaction within their fields. “There are so many wonderful mentors here at Dahlgren that know how to get things done and I have so much respect for them.”

She also became involved with the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs at NSWCDD - visiting high schools, college campuses and other academic institutions to speak about directed energy and the mathematics field.

Over the course of 10 years, Olson worked in various positions supporting laser weapon development, while focusing the majority of her effort on building the Laser Satellite Deconfliction Program.

Currently, Olson serves as the project lead for the Optical Dazzling Interdictor, Navy (ODIN) program, providing senior expertise and technical direction as well as overseeing the testing and evaluation process and delivery of the systems.

She attributes the overall success of the directed energy program to the department teams and collaborative efforts across NSWCDD. “Dahlgren is a leader in directed energy and I believe it is because early on we began developing innovative methods to mature lasers beyond academia and were more progressive, accelerating processes to get these capabilities into the hands of the warfighter,” said Olson. “The team has such high performers who are really dedicated to ensuring that we’re designing laser weapon systems with max capabilities. It is impressive to see everyone’s hard work and commitment to the program.”

During her 15-year career span at NSWCDD, Olson received numerous citations, awards and recognition, including the Dr. Delores M. Etter Top Scientists and Engineers of the Year Award in 2014 and the Technology for the Warfighter Award for her work with LaWS in 2014.