By October 1985, twenty-eight years ago this Women of Color STEM Conference, a 20-something Camille D'Annunizio was preparing for a celebration: doctoral graduation in applied mathematics.
Since 1980, according to statistics from Margaret Murray, a former professor of mathematics at Virginia Tech and author of “Women Becoming Mathematicians: Creating a Professional Identity in Post-World War II America,” women have earned 17.6 percent of the mathematics Ph.D.'s awarded in the United States.
Murray's ‘must-read’ book has been described as a "sociological-historical study" of 36 women mathematicians who received their Ph.D.'s between the years 1940 and 1959. In his review, Paul Zweifel, a leading theoretical physicist and social commentator, wrote that Murray's in-depth study of the lives and careers of women mathematicians tries to answer two basic questions, formulated in her preface: "How do women become mathematicians?" And "How do they find satisfying work and earn respect and remuneration in a field largely defined and dominated by men?"
Other questions in subsequent chapters were, he wrote: "marriage and child-rearing, how do girls and young women cope with the societal/familial attitudes that mathematics is not ‘women's work?’ and whether academic research was abandoned for teaching and/or industry as a result of subtle or not-so-subtle pressure from the male establishment.
Although Women of Color magazine’s study of the life and mathematical career of Dr. Camille D’Annunzio isn’t as scholarly, we did attempt to answer some burning questions Murray poses and, perhaps, understand how “women become mathematicians in the leanest times, when social and cultural force are least supportive of their ambitions” and “women graduate students [are] required to prepare tea before colloquia and clean up afterwards while the men hobnobbed with the speaker.”
"The oldest of seven children, I escaped into books whenever I could," D'Annunzio recalled. "I loved to solve problems and was good at mathematics and science. When I was in 7th grade, much to my father’s dismay as he wanted me to follow in his footsteps as an engineer, I decided I would get a Ph.D. in mathematics even though I didn’t really know what that meant at the time.”
As a math major at Cornell University, she added chemistry to the equation to double major. After she graduated in 1977, she joined Merck where she developed potential pharmaceuticals before starting a doctorate one year later.
“I obtained my Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics with support of my parents¯in spite of skeptical and sometimes prejudiced teachers and professors [with] attitude towards women in mathematics,” she said.
After completing her doctorate at University of Maryland College Park in 1985, she worked as a research associate in the Institute of Physical Science and Technology at University of Maryland. While there, Dr. D'Annunzio did data analysis for an experiment carried on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Satellite ISEE3/ICE. The satellite was the first to measure composition of a comet and D'Annunzio expertly showed the composition of both solar wind and initial results from the comet. She also presented results of this analysis to a 1986 community of scientists at an American Geophysical Union meeting.
D'Annunzio then moved to BDM International's theater warfare analysis group, where she was responsible for modeling and simulation related to chemical systems, chemical warfare and missile defense architectures. Three years on, she presented "Theater Missile Defense against Syrian Chemical Missiles Attacking Israel" at the 1989 Military Operations Research Society Symposium, in front of hundreds of operations research professionals and leaders of the national security analytic community.
As a senior scientist at Radix Systems Inc., D’Annunzio led design and implementation of computational algorithms based on theoretical models of physical, chemical and engineering systems. Over time, her research interests would shift to noise and vibration, eventually earning her a patent in 1997 from work using actuators for vibration control. D’Annunzio was granted a patent for noise reduction in mechanical vibrations to reduce the impact of earthquakes on buildings.
At Alcatel, she wrote algorithms to improve the performance of ASDL modems. Also of note, during a consultancy with MedAcoustics Inc. she developed adaptive algorithms for medical acoustic devices to detect and characterize coronary and artery disease.
On joining Northrop Grumman’s Electronic Systems sector, D’Annunzio returned to her roots with chemical transport modeling for work in concealed explosives. Her first position was the modeling lead for chemical and biological programs.
Since she began at Northrop Grumman’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, or high-Explosive (CBRNE) Technology Center in 2003, D’Annunzio has been granted a Northrop Grumman Invention Disclosure (trade secret) for real time chemical/biological threat situational awareness using tipping/cueing and detection sensors. Five years ago this October, she earned a Northrop Grumman Technology Award. D’Annunzio developed a stochastic model based on principles to determine the hybridization mismatch rates in a reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) multiplex that won a Northrop Grumman Presidential Award. The method is used in expression analysis of single or multiple genes, and expression patterns for identifying infections and diseases.
In 2007, D’Annunzio was program manager and principal investigator of a chem-bio disparate sensor fusion demonstration at Fort Belvoir, a U.S. Army installation that provides logistical, intelligence and administrative support to a diverse mix of commands, activities and agencies. She was the lead on the analysis of standoff suicide bomber detection for the Army which helped to determine the phenomenology of technology for use indoors and outdoors to detect concealed objects. She was also responsible for the framework architecture of Northrop Grumman's efforts in activity recognition and was the engineering manager for a program developing combat identification and ground moving target classification to provide the warfighter with better situational awareness.
In 2009, she was appointed a senior advisory engineer at the global security and technology company and group leader for Northrop Grumman's Automated Sensor Exploitation Center, with responsibility for everything from employee development and staffing to budget, finance, bids and proposals.
Last year, D'Annunzio was a Copernicus finalist for "Exploitation of Networks for Cyber Protection." Copernicus is an open innovation system designed to help meet challenges related to U.S. Department of Defense budget constraints and customer demands for more affordable solutions. Copernican Awards recognize the creativity of talented employees and partners whose ideas will benefit next generation products and business processes.
Currently, D’Annunzio is leading research for ground combat vehicle aided target recognition for ground moving target indication efforts in Northrop Grumman’s Advanced Concepts and Technologies Division.
A scientist, mathematician, and a leader, she has made her mark not only in industry but for the nation's defense. In 2003, when Dr. D'Annunzio started in Northrop Grumman's chem-bio group, chemical and biological warfare was an area of great focus following heightened concern about hidden chemical and biological weapons in Iraq and an anthrax scare at the Navy Consolidated Mail Facility in Washington D.C. As modeling lead for chem-bio explosive defensive systems, she was a significant contributor to Northrop Grumman bio-defense programs as well as performing analysis for the United States Postal Service bio-detection system.
What’s her proudest career accomplishment?
"That is hard to say," she said. "I have worked on so many projects over the years. However, there are a couple that come to mind: While working to improve an existing product and in the process of trying to understand how the software worked for the product, I realized we were solving the wrong mathematical problem¯a nearby problem, but still the wrong problem.
Recognizing and fixing the issue which significantly improved performance brought me a real sense of accomplishment.
“In many other cases I worked with a team to develop products which is always exciting and challenging. During one of these product designs I had to develop a biological simulation that was somewhat out of my range of expertise so I had to build on my chemistry and teach myself the biology to build an accurate model which helped justify the design. This was a very hard project that I completed successfully," D’Annunzio said.
Over 35 years, she has done an exemplary job as technical professional and manager motivating staff to develop algorithms and techniques for problems occurring in radar, sensor fusion, color video, telecommunications, defense, active noise and vibration control, biology, physics, chemistry and engineering.
She attributes her success to "dedication, persistence and competence." In addition, she said, "It is really important to be knowledgeable about all aspects of the project you are working on and to be able to look ahead to see where your business is headed so you can clear the road in that direction.
“You have to have a passion for what you are doing,” she advised. “That passion shows through in your work, and leadership takes notice. I think you also have to have goals and reach for those goals, recognize when your goals need to be modified."
In 2013, Dr. D'Annunzio led a hands-on science station called "Is it an Acid or a Base?" for Girl Power 2013, a free introduction to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) for middle and high school girls in a partnership between the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the Women's Giving Circle of Howard County and the Maryland Space Business Roundtable. The sixth annual Girl Power event attracted more than 1,000 girls and family members.
A 27-year member of the Girl Scouts and a member of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital, D’Annunzio served as leader and advisor for Girl Scout Troops 2232 and 1820 from 1997 through 2013 as her last girl scout graduated and headed off to college. She now works at the council level on the Gold Award Panel.
“Programs like the Girl Scouts are providing STEM programs that help, but much more needs to be done particularly at the middle school level where many girls choose to leave STEM," she said.
"Probably my earliest influence was my mother who interested me in cooking which led me to my first chemistry lab, the kitchen," she said. "Next, was my father, the engineer, who taught me the importance of mathematics in design.”
D'Annunzio says increasing female participation in STEM education means getting girls into projects at an earlier age. "Boys have the equipment to build robots or electrical contraptions where girls do not generally have these things available to them as they grow up. I think elementary programs like Math Olympiad, Destination Imagination, and others need to recruit more girls.”
To this end, she has served as a volunteer (1993-2005) to develop and implement curriculum for age appropriate hands-on science activities at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School and Epworth Pre School. At Quince Orchard High, she has run a college application program series in collaboration with the principal. Her professional groups include the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematicians, Society of Women Engineers, Northrop Grumman Women in Engineering and Northrop Grumman Electronic System’s Women's Initiative for Networking and Success.
Today so many technical areas are inter-related a broad math and science base is important, she noted. "The broad base allows you to make the connections and then provides the ability for you to work with other technical groups,” she explained. “I also think that some coding experience, at least to the level of MATLAB (matrix laboratory, a high-level technical computing language and interactive environment for algorithm development), is necessary so that you understand how computing can be used to assist your problem solving.
“In graduate school, Dr. Bruce Kellogg provided guidance throughout my dissertation. Once in the professional world, I would say Dr. Charles Chassaing had the largest influence on my technical career. He taught me how to first think about solving a problem and then how to go about it," she said.
Looking to the future of her field, “The ‘Big Data Problem’ affects so many in so many ways,” D’Annunzio comments. “The amount of data collected for review by analysts is staggering. This “Big Data” or “Swimming in Data” problem requires many, many analysts and it is impossible to review the data in a timely manner. Automated software to reduce operator fatigue and workload as well as to reduce the total number of operators needed to assist analysts is becoming more and more important with the advent of Big Data.”
To new women in the STEM workforce, her advice is: "Stick with it. If someone tells you, you will never make it and go do it anyway. Don’t hesitate to ask for help, find a mentor you are comfortable going to for all kinds of questions. Being a female in STEM can sometimes be lonely and sometimes frustrating but it can also be very rewarding."