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NEWS | Jan. 7, 2022

NSWC Dahlgren Division Scientists Recognized as STEM Leaders

By NSWCDD Corporate Communications

Diversity is defined as “the condition of having or being composed of different elements,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. To a degree, diversity happens naturally in groups – emphasizing and celebrating the differences between individuals. Think about identical twins: despite growing up in the same household and looking the same, they are different individuals. Merriam-Webster’s definition also defines diversity as “the inclusion of people of different races, cultures, etc. in a group or organization.” At Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD), leaders and employees cultivate an environment of diversity – in both aspects.

“A diverse and inclusive workforce is important because it helps the environment be adaptive to any cultural being,” said NSWCDD Scientist and Software Engineer in the Battle Management System (BMS) program Luis Valcourt-Colon. “People are different enough in and of themselves that there should be diversity naturally and there is to a certain extent,” agreed fellow scientist and deputy project lead for the High Energy Laser Counter Anti-Cruise Ship Missile Project in the Integrated Engagement Systems Department Lauren Perez. “You just come at things from a different perspective when you have different experiences. The more diverse the experiences, the more differently you can think and go about a problem.”

Perez grew up in Miami as a first-generation Cuban. “Coming from Miami to Dahlgren – I want to say it was culture shock, but it was a weird way to have culture shock,” said Perez. “I used to walk through the main hub of my university (Florida International University) and hear multiple dialects of Spanish, as well as multiple other languages. Obviously, there is a culture to Dahlgren and there is a culture outside of Dahlgren. It took me a bit to find the culture and nuances of Dahlgren.”

One of those nuances is what Perez called the “twang.” Valcourt-Colon experienced the same nuances. Valcourt-Colon joined the BMS team six years ago, following his graduation from the University of Puerto Rico at Bayamon (UPRB). “When I started out in BMS, I was the second Puerto Rican in the program,” said Valcourt-Colon. “While I was interviewed and hired by someone who also studied at UPRB, the team I was working with were all Virginia natives with different accents.”

Within a year of her employment at NSWCDD, Perez’s division head at the time asked her if she was interested in joining the department’s diversity and inclusion committee.

“Honestly, I felt a little ‘token Hispanic’ there for a second, but I was also excited to join the committee because with more power comes more responsibility and a bigger impact,” she said. According to Perez, diversity is a two-way street. “I had a co-worker offer me venison when I first started here. In return, I made them a tres leche recipe that he now makes for church outings and has distributed the recipe to so many people. I learned while informing others about my culture and where I came from.”

Valcourt-Colon and Perez are both recognized as winners of the 2021 Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference (HENAAC) STEM Hero Award, which “recognizes contributions of Hispanic STEM professionals who serve as role models for the next generation of American engineers and scientists,” according to the award.

Among other things, Valcourt-Colon received the award for his role in the SeaPerch program, a nationwide STEM program that allows middle and high school students to build and gain knowledge about underwater vehicles. Valcourt-Colon leads the NSWCDD efforts for the project, sponsoring teams in the Virginia area, and a team in Puerto Rico. NSWCDD also supports SeaGlide, which is similar to SeaPerch, for high schoolers, teaching students about unmanned robotic platforms and the software engineering side of things.

“SeaPerch, SeaGlide, and STEM is highly dependent on volunteers who support these programs year-round,” said Valcourt-Colon. According to Valcourt-Colon, there are about 15-20 volunteers a year from all different departments at NSWCDD.

Perez received the award for her work with the diversity and inclusion committee and as NSWCDD’s test and evaluation lead for the Office of Naval Research’s High-power Joint Electromagnetic Non-Kinetic Strike project, as well as recruiting efforts for NAVSEA, NSWCDD and the Integrated Systems Engagement Department.

Valcourt-Colon and Perez are the first-ever recorded NSWCDD employees to receive the award. Since 2010, Great Minds in STEM has partnered with the Department of Defense (DoD) to honor men and women who protect and serve the U.S. through STEM. Nine DoD employees received the 2021 HENAAC STEM Hero Award.