They work among us. They attend our churches. We see them and their families in our supermarkets and at local football games.
They also happen to be among the top leaders in the country who are working to protect us from enemy missile attack. They are women, yes women, and they live and work right here in Huntsville.
This week, they also received good news from the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), also here in Huntsville. The MDA awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman and Raytheon to develop the Next Generation Interceptor or NGI: rockets that protect our skies from enemy intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Angela Johns manages 1,100 of the best and brightest minds in the world as a program director with Northrop Grumman.
"I lead a group of engineers who protect the country everyday, so if the enemy should shoot a missile at us, we can shoot it up of the sky and keep the United States of America safe," said Johns.
As a director at Raytheon Technologies, Melissa Morrison-Ellis doesn't build the rockets that help intercept threats, she runs the team that does.
"I'm the one tapping into other functions, be it digital, technology or quality or engineering or whatever the case may be, those other functions that are needed to get the job done," said Morrison-Ellis.
Raytheon came to Alisha Jacobs and her company, LSINC, because of their specialty in integration.
"What we are able to do is take and design an idea and integrate other technology and create a final deliverable, so in this case, something that intercepts missiles," said Jacobs. "I want to protect those around me, and I want to make sure there's a future."
That future includes this next generation of young women at the Alabama School of Cyber Technology and Engineering (ASCTE).
Recently, the school scheduled a day of learning and coding games just for high school girls and invited female mentors like Morrison-Ellis. It's a much-needed program to help bridge the gap in what's still considered a male-dominated field.
"We specifically wanted to zero in on girls to give them some unique opportunities so they can see they don't have to be a minority in this field," explained ASCTE Dean Rosemary Hodges.
"I think women are increasingly leading teams both in defense and all of the STEM-related fields, and we need women at the table," said Johns.
Much more women are needed when you consider census figures from 1970-2019. The figures show while strides have been made over the last 50 years, only 27% of women in the workforce are currently in STEM-related careers.
Students like 14-year-old Kaitlynn Lynn believe the all-female environment provides freedom for young women to better collaborate and learn STEM.
"With girls, we kind of work together more, and we don't have that problem with people trying to take over," said Lynn.
Fifteen-year-old Valencia Yabo-Dasse, who also attends ASCTE, is also learning life lessons from mentors like Morrison-Ellis on how to network, listen, but also to speak up and be heard.
"Don't be intimidated," said Yabo-Dasse. "Step in and if you're not getting your point through, make it go through."
"I'm still the person in the room that has something to say, not necessarily what's asked for, because I realize that it's important for people to be heard," said Morrison-Ellis. "If we don't allow people to be heard in the field of defense and engineering, we really are missing opportunities."
To find out more about STEM programs offered at the ASCTE, click here.