AFRL professionals share inspirational talks during livestreamed event
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) — The Air Force Research Laboratory hosted its sixth annual AFRL Inspire, the lab’s TEDx-style event, at the Air Force Institute of Technology’s Kenney Hall at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Aug. 23, 2022.
Nine professionals from across AFRL and a special guest speaker, retired Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, a former commander of AFRL and Air Force Materiel Command, shared unique stories during the three-hour special event highlighting the people who develop science and technology for Airmen and Guardians. In celebration of the U.S. Air Force’s 75th anniversary, AFRL historians Dr. Darren Raspa and Jeff Duford hosted this year’s show, entertaining the crowd with stories from the past and connecting them with present-day speakers.
“We are standing on the shoulders of giants who stood up our Air Force and had the foresight that this service would be well grounded in science, technology and innovation,” said AFRL Commander Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle. “I know that [our workforce] carries forward that spirit today,” she said, calling it an honor to be among folks who support our nation’s warfighters.
Following her opening remarks, Pringle welcomed Pawlikowski to the stage, calling her a “true scientist, innovator and technologist” and “one of the first lady bosses of AFRL.”
Pawlikowski, who discussed her 36-year military career, explored her path from Air Force ROTC cadet to four-star general emphasizing the defining moments, including her first AFRL assignment in Rome, New York.
“That’s when I saw what really became my passion, which was delivering technology and making technology work and allowing it to be a part of this great Air Force,” Pawlikowski said. “Technology is the core of our Air Force, and AFRL is the heart and soul.”
Pawlikowski, who emphasized the impact of the technological advances made by the lab, spoke directly to the workforce about the importance of the AFRL mission.
“What you do today is going to be what makes the difference for the future,” she said.
In between the talks, hosts Raspa and Duford discussed historical figures, including Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold and Theodore von Kármán, the founding fathers of the U.S. Air Force, emphasizing the importance of learning from the past to ensure future success in innovation.
“History is about realizing where we came from to better understand where we are going and how we should advance technology tomorrow,” Raspa said.
Maj. Michael Nayak, a planetary scientist and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program manager; formerly with AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate; Maui, Hawaii; kicked off the show, presenting his talk titled, “Around the World in 80 Steps.” Nayak discussed his journey to the South Pole, supporting basic research and revealed the lessons he learned about life in isolation.
“I had to make a conscious effort to look around me for the things I take for granted,” Nayak said. “Instead of this misery and bleak isolation I had expected in Antarctica, I found happiness in the little things, and I found teamwork, this strange camaraderie in our shared suffering.”
Nayak said this experience taught him to be more positive and appreciative, noting how these skills later benefited him during the coronavirus pandemic.
“As I look back on my time in Antarctica, it did make me stronger,” Nayak said. “I’m now calmer in the face of chaos, and I was better able to handle the stresses of lockdown.”
Taking the audience from the South Pole to inside the human body, Dr. Mike Goodson, a research biologist from AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing, presented his talk, titled “Gut Check: Internal Dialogue,” which explored his work with microbes, or microorganisms. His research aims to help warfighters perform optimally even when deployed to extreme environments.
“Our microbial selves are an essential component of what makes up a resilient and high-performing warfighter,” Goodson said. “Armed with the knowledge gained by people pooing for science, we can design interventions to promote the resilient microbiomes.”
Goodson emphasized the significance of microbe research for the military.
“Success or failure in the future fight depends not only on who has the best tactics, but also who has the best microbes,” he said.
Transitioning to the space domain, Dr. Kerianne Hobbs, a research aerospace engineer and the ACT3 safe autonomy and space lead from AFRL’s Sensors Directorate, highlighted the need for her work training artificial intelligence, or AI, systems to safely and autonomously navigate spacecraft.
“Space business is booming, and space is getting crowded,” Hobbs said. “We have a huge space traffic management problem that the international community needs to work together to solve.”
Hobbs and her AFRL team developed simulations to test the safety of AI agents that learn desired behaviors based on reinforcement learning. The goal is to build systems that work well with human operators, she said.
“A spacecraft that can reliably and safely navigate space on its own will help to make the lantern brighter for exploration,” Hobbs said. “Together, humans and AI can explore further than we could on our own.”
Shifting to the medical field, Dr. Melissa Wilson, a nurse scientist from AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing, presented her talk titled “Moral Distress and the Science of Caring.” in which she addressed research aimed at ensuring health care providers don’t suffer as a result of their work. Wilson described how 25 years as a nurse led her to develop personalized intervention approaches that provide hope and guidance to her colleagues.
“Right now, many of our health care providers are doing everything they can to hold it all together,” Wilson said. “We have an opportunity to recognize situations early to prevent these long-term conditions from adversely affecting our people, our military health care system and our mission.”
Following a brief intermission, Dr. Jayde King, a research psychologist from AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing, presented futuristic scenarios of human-machine teaming in her talk, exploring instances where autonomous agents and humans work together to accomplish tasks.
“If we want to win the future fight, we need to support systems that do not just function as tools but can instead team with Airmen [and Guardians] to enable quick, dynamic and strategic decision making and commission execution,” King said.
She explained how her team focuses on key challenges like helping autonomous agents make inferences and draw conclusions from the evidence.
“Autonomous agents can build on our collection of knowledge by training on data we produce, and through models we build based on tasks and specific knowledge domains,” King said. “Whether the next mission context is in the next five years or the next 20, our work to enable the human autonomy teams of tomorrow must start now.”
Shifting to the topic of cybersecurity, Delia Jesaitis and Steve Colenzo from AFRL’s Information Directorate in Rome, New York, recalled how they helped launch the Hack-A-Sat competition by bridging the gap between the U.S. government and the super-secretive hacker community. The unlikely partnership they forged ultimately helped strengthen satellite security by identifying vulnerabilities that could harm our “collective, mobile way of life.”
“Through crowd-sourced problem solving and increasing tolerance to openness, there is now a global alliance and effort that is tackling the challenge of space security,” Jesaitis said. “By facilitating the participation of nearly 10,000 international hackers and millions of spectators from industry, academia, government and the press, Hack-A-Sat has already returned dividends to the Department of the Air Force and the Space community at large.”
Taking the audience from cybersecurity to rocket fuel, Dr. Steve Chambreau, a physical chemist from AFRL’s Aerospace Systems Directorate at Edwards Air Force Base, California, presented a talk titled “Next Generation of Liquid Propellants.” He detailed the science behind Advanced Spacecraft Energetic Non-Toxic propellant, or ASCENT, an AFRL-developed formula that increases performance, lowers launch costs and makes load operations safer.
“This pioneering work has the potential to greatly improve the safety of rocket fuels and has fundamentally changed the culture of how we approach and balance risks and payoffs in propellant design,” Chambreau said.
Brian “Mitch” Mitchell, a pipeline coordinator from AFRL’s Munitions Directorate, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, ended the show with a call to action for help recruiting the next generation of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, professionals.
“If we are truly going to make a difference in STEM, if we’re going to energize a STEM-literate society, we have to create that next generation of inventors, creators and innovators,” Mitchell said. “We have to work to find those kids and bring the world of STEM to them and make that kind of work so incredibly cool that they can’t think of anything else that they would rather do.”
Pringle closed the event by praising the hosts and speakers for their passion and dedication to the mission.
“We are so lucky to be advancing the state-of-the-art in science, technology and innovation,” Pringle said. “It’s the common purpose that unites us, the common goal to keep our nation free.”
To view AFRL Inspire, visit AFRL’s YouTube Page.