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Bright Minds: Danielle Hilliard, air and missile defense

By Janene Holzberg

1:03 PM EDT, March 21, 2013

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“The combat system is the brain that helps you fire ‘the bullet,’ which is actually an extremely complex missile,” Danielle Hilliard says of her highly technical job in air and missile defense.

She uses simple visual images to demystify her job as a rocket scientist working on ballistic missiles in APL’s Space Department.

As a program manager, the 41-year-old Clarksville resident has a dual role that requires her to work internally and externally. She communicates with engineers,  works across APL departments and with partners at such institutions as MIT and Penn State.

“When the engineers aren’t around I must still be able to talk at a high level with our sponsors,” she says. “And as a leader, I have to be a nurturer. That means transferring the abilities women innately have to technical life.”

Hilliard’s earliest ambition was to become an astronaut, a dream that took shape in 1979 when NASA’s Skylab space station was still in orbit. While that desire eventually faded, her interest in space soared.

She even met her husband, who is an assistant program manager at APL, at an aerospace engineering conference in 1995. When she spied Tony Hilliard, she told a friend, “You don’t like nerds. He’s mine,” she recalls, chuckling at the memory. They wed two years later.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace science engineering from Tuskegee University in Alabama in 1995 and a master’s degree in information technology from Capitol College in Laurel in 2001, joining APL that same year.

Wanting to devote more time to her and Tony’s three children -- two boys and a girl who range in age from 5 to 15 -- Hilliard opted for the flexibility of a 32-hour work week in 2006 after putting in five years as a full-time employee.

Today, she observes a growing number of women in science, she says, adding that she remembers when she was “the only female in the room.”

Women’s roles and responsibilities today are as important as their skill sets.

“As women, we have a lot of voice. We influence future generations more than men because, in general, children see women more” as they interact with them in their roles as mothers and as teachers, especially at the elementary-school level.

“But we’re not just in the classroom -- we’re role models in the field,” she says.

Since she believes a person’s interests can “take you down so many different paths,” it follows that her advice to kids is “to always continue to seek knowledge and take on personal challenges.

“Never be content to learn one thing and be an expert on that, since there are so many opportunities in the global world we live in,” she says.

Hilliard emphasizes the importance of the middle school years, when proficiency in math and science begins to accelerate and set the stage for high school and beyond. Programs such as Girl Power -- an APL expo that attracts more than 750 middle- and high-school girls each March to learn about STEM careers -- are on the right track, she says.

“My daughter asks me nearly every day whether anything I did at work was fun,” she says. “Work should be engaging. For me the most important thing is interacting with people to get to the end state, like watching the flight tests of a missile.”

A strong believer in voluntarism, Hilliard excels not only at her job, but also in simplifying scientific principles that are difficult for most people to wrap their minds around. She spends as many as 10 hours a week mentoring youth. She also ekes out the time to judge one or two STEM competitions a week.

“We need to tune in to what kids know now, and I’ll do whatever I can to be innovative,” she says.