Army engineer breaks gender, cultural stereotypes in international S&T assignment
Denisse Szmigiel was a child when her family survived political turmoil, violence and an attempted kidnapping in El Salvador in the 1990s. The family moved to the United States in search of a safer and better life.
Twenty-three years later, Denisse has earned two college degrees and a career as a U.S. Army civilian engineer. She seized an opportunity 16 months ago to return to South America.
“My father, Rene Ramirez Ortiz, is from El Salvador and my mother, Miriam Ramirez, is from Guatemala. I was born in California, but when I was very little my parents brought me to El Salvador because my father was starting his own business and was hopeful that it would grow.
“After the civil war in El Salvador ended in 1991 — plus a strong earthquake that destroyed many parts of the country in 1986 — the situation got worse in the capital where we lived,” she said. “The civil war was mostly taking place outside the capital, but when it ended, those soldiers, who after a 10-year war were now in their mid-20s, found themselves with a family to support, no money to feed their families and they only knew how to use weapons. Those young retired soldiers moved to the capital and without any skillsets, they brought their weapons and started stealing, hurting and even killing innocent people for their goods. Soon after the war, my parents were robbed many times in their business, had two cars stolen and my U.S.-born brother went through an attempted kidnapping. My parents decided it was no longer safe for us to live in El Salvador and decided to move us to the U.S. in fear of our safety. I was 13 years old.”
Szmigiel accepted a three- to five-year assignment in South America — this time to Chile — in August 2015. She helps to lead an international component of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command.
“The perfect job is what I’m doing right now. Looking for science and ways to collaborate with other countries and working with other cultures. It’s a perfect mix,” said Szmigiel, who serves as RDECOM-Americas’ technical director.
Breaking through age, gender and cultural stereotypes is a part of her daily life, she said. Szmigiel said she surprises people of all nationalities, backgrounds, educational levels and professions: students, scientists and military officers from the United States, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere.
“I meet new people every day. I break those stereotypes every day as a young, Hispanic female engineer,” she said. “It takes them a minute. I feel as though I have to work extra hard to show them that I know what I’m talking about.
Szmigiel earned a bachelor of science in industrial engineering, including a mini-MBA, from Rutgers University in 2003 and a master’s degree in technology management from the Stevens Institute of Technology in 2009. She is proficient in five languages — English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian.
“My parents speak Spanish, so I learned from them. I studied at a British school while I was in El Salvador. It was a private school, so they make you learn other languages. I learned French when I was a kid.
“Learning multiple languages facilitated learning problem solving. I have traveled around the world for work and fun. I picked up Portuguese since we have an office in Brazil, where I travel to quite often. I’ve been teaching myself, and I get to practice right away for work,” she said.
Even her boss, Col. Allen Garrison, director of RDECOM-Americas, was surprised when he met Szmigiel.
“When I first met Denisse at the Santiago airport, I thought she was an intern, due to her youthful appearance. However, it did not take long to dispel those thoughts and understand she is a seasoned professional who leads many of our organization’s important initiatives,” he said. “She is probably one of the most dedicated professionals I have met in my 24-year Army career.
“Her drive and determination to establish standards and make our mission happen, across our geographically dispersed organization — from Canada to Argentina — with minimal staffing, is nothing short of amazing. There is no one I would rather have as my deputy than Denisse.”
RDECOM-Americas, which was founded in 2004, has headquarters in Santiago, Chile. It has three satellite offices, known as international technology centers, in Ottawa, Canada; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Sao Paulo, Brazil. RDECOM-Pacific in Tokyo and RDECOM-Atlantic in London represent their respective global regions.
The international offices focus on initiating partnerships with industry, foreign military laboratories and academia. They aim to maximize scientific discovery potential in their regions and minimize cost to the Army as well as facilitate government-to-government engagements in areas critical to building partner capability.
Szmigiel’s first Army assignment in 2007 was with the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey.
In 2009, she took a six-month temporary position as international cooperative specialist in Chile. The Army needed an engineer who spoke Spanish, had an interest in international R&D work and could deploy within two weeks. She was able to quickly fill the position. And when the opportunity arose five years later for a permanent assignment in South America, she jumped at the opportunity.
She has established a formal process for how the Army engages with foreign universities and industry to award grants. She has also created a new method for tracking technical grants and budgets for analysis.
In addition to her usual duties as technical director, she reaches out to local students, especially girls, to pursue an education in science and technology, which has been important to Szmigiel since her arrival in Chile.
When the U.S. Embassy asked her to present “STEM Needs Women” at Santiago’s Nido de Aguilas Middle School’s career day in September, she wanted to gain a perspective on the students’ preconceived notions.
“I started off the presentation a little different. I didn’t want anyone to introduce me, give my title or say where I work. I asked them what they thought I do for a living,” she said. “Not many picked up on an engineer, and I asked them why.
“Everyone has a stereotype what an American and an engineer looks like. Then I gave them my title, and they said they thought it would have been an older man. I didn’t look like what they thought. There is no look for an engineer.
“I told them, ‘Don’t put up barriers for yourself. Break the stereotypes when you meet others.’ “
Szmigiel did another presentation to more than 70 girls in which most participants drove longer than four hours to listen to the talk. A biochemist and astronomer also presented.
Both Chile and the United States have similar issues with engaging girls in STEM fields, Szmigiel said. And progress is slow. The U.S. State Department would like her to do a few more talks across South America.
“I was surprised when a Chilean researcher told me they also have an issue recruiting and retaining women in engineering. I asked about the Chilean ratio, and he said 20 percent women and 80 percent men. This ratio is the same as in the U.S. and other developed countries,” she said.
“When I was in college, out of a lecture room of 200 people, there were maybe three women and in some I was the only one. Even today, I’m often in a meeting where I’m the only civilian, female and Spanish-speaking person. People often assume I’m an intern or I’m there to take notes.
“This is a common problem. I am hoping to be of inspiration to Spanish-speaking girls — being a female and of Latin background. I’m trying to break a lot of stereotypes in the field. I tell everybody that if you can dream, you can achieve and don’t let being different slow you or stop you in achieving your goals. Obstacles just make you stronger. “
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The U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command 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.