NATICK, Mass. -- Don't ask Dr. Sheila Widnall to jump out of a perfectly good airplane, but there probably isn't much else she has balked at during her accomplished professional career.

As a former Secretary of the Air Force and now an Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Widnall was an obvious choice to speak at the Natick Soldier Systems Center's Women's History Month program March 20. This year's theme was "Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics."

"I have spent my career encouraging and enabling women to pursue STEM-related careers," Widnall told the audience at Hunter Auditorium. "I take a certain amount of credit for MIT's increase in women undergraduates from two percent to 50 percent. I was there on the battlefield, fully armed, while it was happening."

Widnall, the only woman to ever serve as secretary of a U.S. military service, also was a member of the board that investigated the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. She has watched other professional women make great strides over the years, as well.

"We are seeing more and more accomplishments of women in engineering," Widnall said. "In my industry, aerospace engineering, we see senior women at all of the major companies."

Widnall added that the military has been a springboard for many of those remarkable careers.

"Today's military, across all of the services, is enabled by science and technology," Widnall said. "It is an equipment-intensive, extreme sport. Much of the application of science and technology occurs remotely, far from the battlefield, but of course it's much more difficult today to identify where the battlefield is.

"I salute the recent decision by the Defense Department to open most combat roles to women, but even beyond their participation in combat, the military offers superb opportunities for women in leadership."

Widnall said that women had to find places in science and technology to participate in the future.

"I am pleased but not complacent about the advances that women have made across all fields, including science and technology, but there are many hills left to climb and the going can get rough," Widnall said. "But the rewards are worth the effort."

Widnall pointed out that as Air Force secretary, she had flown supersonically but never had the urge to parachute out of an airplane. That didn't stop Lt. Col. Frank Sobchak, Natick's garrison commander, from comparing her to an Army Pathfinder, who would never hesitate to do just that.

"You were the Pathfinder for a lot of women," Sobchak said. "We wanted to thank you for that."