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NEWS | Oct. 4, 2022

NSWCDD Scientist Keeps Climbing Despite Vision Ailment

By NSWCDD Corporate Communications

When Sheila Ali was growing up in Bangladesh, she suddenly developed Juvenile Macular Degeneration at age 16.

Ali recalls that doctors in her native country had a difficult time diagnosing the condition, which is a common eye disorder that causes blurred or reduced central vision.

Ali’s sister began to suffer from the ailment around the same time.

“We thought we would go blind right away,” Ali said. “We didn’t know what we would do for a while. After I finished high school, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to go to college.”

After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2002 from the University of North Texas, Ali worked as a software developer in Dallas.

After seven years, she went back to school to earn a master’s degree in computer science, interning at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) in 2012.

The following year, Ali started as a full time scientist in the Battle Management System (BMS) program at NSWCDD.

Ali is legally blind with her eyesight diagnosed at 20/500 or more, which is considered profound vision impairment. Her condition is known as Stargardt Disease – a rare genetic eye disorder that occurs when fatty material builds up on the macula.

Despite her eyesight consistently deteriorating, Ali has managed to become a major contributor to BMS.

In 2021, she received the Women of Color Technology Award.

She was recognized as a Rising Star because of her “skill, tenacity and willingness to share and grow others through her software development work,” according to her nomination form submitted by Weapon Control Software Branch head David Sullins.

Ali’s accomplishments include creating solutions to control functionality for a simulator used to train U.S. Air Force crews flying aircraft that support special operations troops in ground engagements.

“It’s like climbing a big hill and you get a reward,” Ali said. “It can be long and agonizing to finish those tasks because even simple tasks are not easy for me.”

Ali also adapted existing software to make it more flexible to the needs of the user community and she serves as a trusted advisor to new employees.

Ali’s early career highlights include implementing an INI Generator for the Ground Based Air Defense system in 2014. She also completed a rotation with the Joint Laser Deconfliction Safety System in 2015.

“I really like coding, computer programming, solving different issues and creating solutions for the warfighter,” Ali said.

Ali creates solutions at home, as well.

Since her disability doesn’t allow her to drive or perform certain tasks, like shopping in a store, she uses alternative options. She orders all of her groceries online and uses ride share services to get around Fredericksburg, where she lives.

“It has been a great challenge, especially in Fredericksburg,” Ali said of maneuvering around town. “The transportation system is not as vast as Dallas.”

 Ali experienced difficulties convincing an agency to drive her to a vanpool so that she could get to work when NSWCDD employees returned to the office three days a week earlier this year. She was able to do so, telling operators that she may have to quit her job if transportation ceased.

When Ali is at her desk, she uses magnifiers to read and narration services to dissect lengthy text. She said her supervisors have been very cooperative about procuring the equipment she needs.

However, she remains concerned about her future because her condition can still worsen.

“It’s a challenge,” Ali said. “But I’m going to continue to work as long as I can.”