Army civilian engineer applies no-fear personality to career
May 6, 2013
- Smagala's first foray into engineering was not unlike her approach to conquering her fear of heights or challenging her ability to run long distances.
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- Lisa Smagala used to be afraid of heights, until she took a hot air balloon ride to challenge her fear. Guns made her nervous, so she went to a shooting range to test a few out. When Smagala thought she was an awful distance runner, she signed up for her first half marathon.
"I just like throwing myself into things," Smagala said. "The only way I fully understand something is to touch it and feel it, so figuring out how things work and facing a problem head on is how I always approach things."
At the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command's chemical, biological center, Smagala serves as the systems integration team leader within the Advanced Design and Manufacturing Division's Technology and Systems Integration Branch at Edgewood Chemical Biological Center.
Smagala has used her no-fear personality and disciplined work ethic to advance her skills as a systems engineer, bring success to her team and add value to her many projects.
As a female team lead in a field historically driven by males, Smagala never lets being the "small girl in the room" deter her from immersing herself in a field that truly piqued her interest.
"I really don't mind getting dirty, or climbing around the vehicles turning wrenches," Smagala said. "Although these days I don't get to do it as much as I used to, that type of work is what really excites me. I'm a hands-on learner."
Smagala has been in the systems engineering line of work for more than 10 years and spent her undergraduate years studying industrial engineering. "A majority of my studies and the jobs that I've held were heavily male dominated," Smagala said.
While she is used to the environment and feels comfortable in the atmosphere, she has encountered some difficult attitudes from time to time.
"Never at ECBC, but I have been in several situations where male customers would ask another male questions even though I'm the person in charge, or I may get treated differently. The best way I combat that is to just show them what I am made of," Smagala said. "Work ethic, good results, drive and skill all speak on their own. While they may not ask me questions initially, it doesn't take long for them to realize that I am capable."
Although Smagala is someone who has always pushed herself, hard work is a trait that comes naturally. A strong work ethic and building relationships are the traits that Smagala thinks are essential to any engineer's career -- male or female.
"You have to be committed to your job, be excited and want to see you programs succeed," Smagala said. "I try to instill that value in our team to encourage members to work hard. Our Warfighters deserve a certain level of service, and we need to be able to deliver on that."
Smagala's first foray into engineering was not unlike her approach to conquering her fear of heights or challenging her ability to run long distances - she took a head-first and hands-on approach. At 18 years old, Smagala worked a summer job at the General Motors factory assembly line near her Delaware home. In her time with GM, Smagala started as a summer intern and became a full-time engineer by the time she graduated from the University of Delaware with a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering.
"I stayed with GM for about seven years and really enjoyed my job. Unfortunately the plant began to show signs of closing down, so I couldn't stay as long as I wanted," Smagala said. "It was because of the real exposure to the working world an manufacturing that I found the field exciting and fast paced."
After GM, Smagala ventured into a completely different side of engineering and took on a job at WL Gore working with the company's fabric division as a part of their testing lab/ manufacturing support. The difference between working on vehicles versus working with fabrics was immense to her.
"While it very different to transition from cars to fabric, I got a whole new view of manufacturing through the work we did in the lab," Smagala said.
Although Smagala enhanced her skills in research and development and learned a lot through the process, she wanted to manage more than just a piece of the puzzle, so she started to pursue different opportunities --especially when she met Kevin Wallace through a mutual friend. Wallace, Smagala said, always talked about the exciting work he did at ECBC. It didn't take Smagala too long to send Kevin her resume to see if ECBC could be a good fit for her.
"I gave Kevin my resume and about six to eight months later I got a call from the Advanced Design and Manufacturing Division inviting me in for an interview," Smagala said. During her time with ECBC Smagala said she has truly pushed herself and really grown as an engineer.
High-profile projects she worked on included the Buffalo vehicle, the Joint Explosive Ordinance Disposal Rapid Response Vehicle Surrogate and the Husky Mounted Detection System Surrogate.
In addition to her projects, Smagala earned a master of science in business administration from Wilmington University, and a master of science in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University within three years while with ECBC.
"I just wanted to throw myself into it and complete all the programs. I felt very encouraged by my coworkers here who work so hard and are so passionate about what they do," Smagala said. "I wanted to become more well-rounded and do as much as I could to fully understand and appreciate every opportunity."
Smagala said her favorite project thus far with ECBC was the work with the JERRV Surrogate, a training vehicle for the Joint Improvised Explosives Defeat Organization. This was the first project that Smagala has had the opportunity to work with from cradle to grave.
"I have been involved with JERRV from the start and I got to see it from the initial fielding, to sustainment, training and enhancements for a fleet of 80 vehicles, so I feel a personal tie with that one. We spent a lot of time with the Soldiers during training and practical exercises and really got an inside look into their needs."
Traveling 90 minutes each way to get to ECBC every day, Smagala uses the little free time she has to stay active in volleyball, kickball, dodgeball leagues and participates in obstacle course races. While her schedule can be stressful and exhausting at times, it is all worth it. Smagala believes it is hard to get stressed when you're having fun.