REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- During the month of February, the country commemorates African American heritage, history and achievements. The Army values the important contributions of African American Soldiers and Department of the Army civilians.

In November 2017, the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center welcomed the first African American director, Dr. Juanita Harris.

A native of East St. Louis, Illinois, Harris has built a career in engineering and leadership.

Here is a look at the steps she took to get where she is today, and the advice she would give to others wanting to follow a similar career path.

Q: Tell us about the career path that led you to AMRDEC?

Harris: I served in numerous leadership positions under PEO/PM offices for both Aviation and Missiles & Space. In these capacities, I had the pleasure of working with the AMRDEC leadership and their team members who were providing matrix support. During my tenure as the technical division chief in the PM UAS Project Office, I worked an initiative to look at new technology solutions for the UAS product baselines. My direction toward investigating technology advancements was a natural path to AMRDEC as the deputy director for the Aviation Development Directorate, which manages the science & technology portfolio for aviation.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be an engineer?

Harris: Actually, no. In the home and community where I was raised, engineering was not a recognized career path for a female. My high school counselor realized my strengths in the math and science areas and steered me toward looking at engineering disciplines as a career.

Q: What advice would you give to women wanting to pursue a career in engineering?

Harris: First, follow your passions as related to your strengths and aspirations. Engineering is not just for males, and as women, we provide diverse experience bases and technical value to the engineering discipline. Second, I would encourage them in the way my mother encouraged me. Do not let your environment define your future. Go after all the things you feel you can accomplish. Know how your strengths can be utilized toward your future goals.

Q: How have you overcome adversity in pursuing your career?

Harris: I overcame the adversity which faced my life's career choice by simply persevering and looking to God. For every opportunity I wanted to seek, I assessed my strengths and weaknesses in light of the opportunity. I only applied for opportunities where I could see how my strengths could be utilized while allowing me to shore up any weaknesses. Each opportunity had to provide room for professional growth and a clear vision of how I could make things better.

Q: What piece of advice would you offer someone considering a career as an engineer and a public servant?

Harris: My advice would be to seek a position which aligns with your interests and your passions. Do not seek a career just based on pay. Being a public servant is about putting mission before oneself. The roles we execute to meet the needs of the warfighter are exhilarating and personally rewarding.

Q: What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?

Harris: Not to take myself too seriously. There is room to find humor in our day-to-day jobs. But still be the best that you can be and do not be discouraged by others.

Q: How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

Harris: Mentorship is extremely important to me, as I have been blessed to have excellent mentors in my life, and I drive to provide mentorship to others as much as possible. I also chair the AMRDEC-wide mentorship program as it provides a great opportunity to assist others in identify and achieving their career goals.

Q: Where do you see AMRDEC in the coming year?

Harris: I see AMRDEC as a critical element in meeting the Army's Modernization priorities. Our technologies, innovations and engineering services across the engineering life cycle are well-known across our Army and other support services. I believe AMRDEC will continue to reflect its excellence in meeting the challenges of the Army and by establishing new capabilities for our warfighter. Additionally, I want to see our partnerships grow with our industry-based partners and future international partners.

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U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to provide innovative research, development and engineering to produce capabilities that provide decisive overmatch to the Army against the complexities of the current and future operating environments in support of the joint warfighter and the nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.