Mission Possible: Helping Sponsors and Helping StudentsNovember 2018
Darla Sligh has an analytical mind. She's also quite curious. Both qualities make for a great engineer.
She likes to take a deep dive into a complex system, whether it's a machine or an organization, figure out how it works, envision how it can be more efficient, and come up with a plan to do just that.
As a lead engineer who works in MITRE's McLean, Virginia, offices, she's delved into many organizations—from NATO to the IRS. She analyzes what they do and finds ways to improve their operations.
"I enjoy the people, the work, and the opportunity to always learn something new," Sligh says. "One of the things I really like about working at MITRE is that I'm supporting the U.S. government mission. I also get to work on projects that have a global impact. I take my job of solving problems for a safer world very seriously."
An example is her work supporting the U.S. component of NATO. Sligh performed a detailed capability analysis on the overall U.S. NATO organization—the services it offered and how those services were supported. That meant looking at and analyzing multiple software, databases, and platforms. She also analyzed the services themselves, including how effective they were.
She made recommendations on how to better deliver those services and, if the services were relocated, answered questions such as: How should that be done? Where should they be located and what should the job descriptions be for positions in the new location?
"I looked at their systems, all the applications that they're running, and the tools they used to support those systems," she says. "It was a comprehensive view of every system, from a service architecture perspective and from an operational view."
Skills Recognized from an Early Age
Sligh holds a doctorate in computer information systems and communications from Robert Morris University in her hometown of Pittsburgh. She began working full time at MITRE in 2014 after consulting here for several years.
The roots of her career lie in her hometown as well. Sligh developed her basic engineering skills after encouragement from a junior high school homeroom teacher. He noticed her abilities in math and science and helped her enroll in a community program that bolstered her math, science, and engineering skills.
Then, as a college engineering student at the University of Pittsburgh, she did her first internship at General Motors.
"I learned how to break down a car and put it back together again," she says. "That was very interesting." She later interned in the product litigation department at GM, "and that was exciting, too. It exposed me to the role engineering and science can play in the legal arena—both for proving things scientifically and for creating trial exhibits."
She hasn't stopped learning since. All her work experiences and education led her to where she is today—a sought-after project leader and subject-matter expert.
Paying It Forward – STEM Style
When Sligh isn't helping the U.S. mission through her MITRE work or raising her family, she teaches and mentors underserved students in northern Virginia.
She wants to make sure there's someone there, as her homeroom teacher was for her. She encourages students who might not otherwise believe they have a chance to succeed in the world of science, technology, engineering, and math, also known as STEM.
Sligh is a member of MITRE's STEM Council, formed in October 2017, and she recently helped organize a student event held at MITRE's McLean offices. She also is a member of the adjunct faculty at the University of Maryland and Atlantis University in Miami, where she teaches engineering.
"The STEM disciplines are everywhere," she tells her students. "If you like health, for example, you can be a bio-medical engineer, or you can be a technician, or you can design the medical devices—or you can be a doctor. Find the discipline of STEM that will support what you want to do. And then go do it."
—by Tom Nutile
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