Diversity of Backgrounds a Workplace Asset

November 2016
Stan Jones and Kavya Kopparapu

What do a senior principal communications engineer and a high school biomedical statistical research intern have in common?

It turns out, quite a bit.

This story started like so many do, with a hallway conversation. Dan Ward, who leads MITRE's workforce planning team, commented, "When I talk with employees, so often I see the same enthusiasm for the work shining in their eyes—even with six or seven decades separating them."

We decided to test Ward's perspective and invited one of MITRE's most veteran employees and one of our high school interns to get together and talk about their work.

Kavya Kopparapu is 16 and was an emerging technologies research intern in McLean this summer.

At age 85, Stan Jones has been with MITRE for more than 45 years, currently supporting the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development. He held managerial roles in the past, but is happy to be focusing on technical challenges these days. "Listening to Kavya, I'm amazed at the similarities between us," Jones says. "I think about what it was like for me all those years ago—but with one difference: Kavya has a much clearer understanding of what she wants to do than I did at her age."

Q: When did you first realize you were interested in science and technology?

Stan: "It was a consequence of limited resources. I wanted to be an architect, but couldn't afford to go away to the University of Virginia. So I worked part time and attended James Madison University, living at home. I became quite interested in math and physics, won a fellowship from the University of Delaware, and earned my master's degree in physics."

Kavya: "I can pinpoint a moment: in the fourth grade, chemists came to our science night at school and did the 'Elephant's Toothpaste' experiment that shoots foam up into the air. It was so cool and I knew I wanted to learn more."

Q: How did you find your way to MITRE?

Stan: "I had been with small companies doing military R&D, but during the Vietnam War, development contracts were cut back severely. MITRE had just started working with the FAA on air traffic control. To be honest, I intended to work here for a year or two, publish some papers, and then go back into industry. But here I am, 45 years later. I've always been challenged and our work is exciting and meaningful. Plus, I love the exposure to so many technical problems."

Kavya: "MITRE came to an internship fair at my school. After talking with them, I was excited and went to the MITRE website. I got interested in a research project and sent an email to the project lead, and he invited me in for an interview. That's a piece of advice I'd offer anyone looking for an internship: don't be shy. Look for something you want to work on and send an email. The worst they can say is 'no.'"

Q: Why has MITRE been a good fit for you?

Stan: "At my time of life, I ought to be able to think of something better to do, but I'm enjoying myself. Because of the diversity of projects, you can move into different areas and stay with the same company. I've worked with the FAA, the Navy, been a manager, and I'm now back to focusing just on the technical work in about six different areas, one involving small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

"There are amazing new applications for these UAVs, such as cargo delivery systems, surveillance for power lines, or railroad maintenance. But people need to track their vehicles if they are beyond line of sight and avoid conflicts with low-flying aircraft. These are cutting-edge problems. That's the great thing about MITRE—we get to work on these important projects."

Kavya: "I love coming to work knowing that I could create something that may help someone's health. Plus, I'm constantly learning. Right now, I'm studying statistical methods and how to analyze medical data. I never want to feel bored. Also at MITRE, I'm exposed to so many different professions at an early age.

Before I came to MITRE, I wanted to become a doctor. Now I want to be both a medical doctor and Ph.D. so I can help patients directly and do research."

Q: In addition to not being shy, what other advice do you have for students considering MITRE—or science & technology in general?

Stan: "Learn to ask the right questions. Here's why: scientists and engineers are trained to move forward methodically. But before you expend the effort, will you get the answer that fixes the problem? In industry, you worry about getting the next contract. At MITRE, because we operate federally funded research and development centers, our obligation is to do the best for the government and American people. And that means we have a great deal of influence determining the tasks we address—and that means asking the right questions."

Kavya: "I'd say be open to any kind of work as long as you're being challenged. And be open to the other people around you, because everyone here is so talented. The opportunities at MITRE are so diverse. You might think you're going to work on one thing, but because the company is so interdisciplinary, you'll pick up all kinds of skills.

"Believe me, you'll get even more than you hoped for at MITRE."

—by Bill Eidson

This interview took place in August 2016.

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