While catching up recently with an old friend, Sezin Palmer talked about her work as a program manager in APL's Research and Exploratory Development Department and her previous stint in the Undersea Warfare Department.
"I mentioned that I also do modeling," she says.
The friend's face lit up, revealing her excitement at hearing about this sideline career walking a runway, Palmer says, laughing. She explained to the woman that she works with physics and mathematical models that allow exploration of scientific theories, not high fashion.
Palmer, 37, is a Howard County native who graduated from Centennial High School and ended up at APL "by accident."
She earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland in 1997 and received her master's degree in the same subject in 2000 from the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. She was aiming for a career in the burgeoning wireless industry.
Mainly out of curiosity, she took a chance during college on a co-op job at the U.S. Naval Research Lab in Washington and then followed that up with an internship at the Central Intelligence Agency. These assignments unearthed an interest in submarines, the ocean and naval forces.
Currently working as a program manager in intelligent systems, autonomy and modeling after transferring last summer from working in submarine warfare, she tackles APL customers' biggest technical challenges.
But it wasn't easy establishing herself in her career.
"For me, the biggest challenge was being a young woman in an older-male-dominated field and gaining respect," the 12-year APL employee recalls. "I didn't follow a typical career path. By virtue of my experience in government, I started running projects and programs at 25. That took a while for [the men working under me] to handle."
Until 2011, women were not allowed on submarines due to concerns that they could suffer serious ill-effects if pregnant, due to exposure to a nuclear reactor and breathing recirculated air, she explains.
"Submarines are cramped, tight spaces, and it was a pain to integrate women," she says. In retrospect, Palmer says, she sees some irony in playing a leadership role on submarine programs when women weren't allowed to serve on the vessels themselves.
"I never even thought about it until a Navy captain I was working with paid me a compliment and mentioned it," she says. "That said, I think part of being a successful woman in a male-dominated field probably includes the ability to focus on the work at hand and not get too wrapped up in thinking about the differences between men and women."
Palmer, who lives in Ellicott City with her two sons, ages 4 and 7, says the key is making STEM fun through projects. "Kids can ask, 'Why do some cars go faster?' and 'What materials should we use?' "
As a society, we are doing better today, she believes, noting she wasn't introduced to the word "engineer" until she was in 11th grade.
"People realize now that letting girls play with trucks and tools is a good thing, so we've overcome that mind-set," she says.
Her advice: Take initiative, and be persistent.
"Question everything, and don't give up. If you don't understand something, ask. If it doesn't make sense to you, ask again," she advises. "Don't sit back and wait for someone to tell you what to do. No one else will work as hard as you to get you where you want to be."