Valiant Celebrates Its Women In Science

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(February 11, 2021) Today on International Women and Girls in Science Day, the world champions women who have met and overcome challenges in contributing to science and technology. We recognize and remember the superlative achievements of women in these fields over thousands of years in history.

We celebrate the women of Valiant who strive daily to defend our Federal Government’s vital systems and data from constant and ever changing threats. We are proud to share their stories with you.

As an Information System Security Officer (ISSO), Valiant’s Kesy Amana links the Chief Information Officer with, as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) describes it, “an agency’s authorizing officials, information system owners, and information systems security officers.”

Kesy leads by providing organization-wide procedures and templates, ensuring her agency has proper technical staff for security impact analyses, and managing the board responsible for major system security decisions.

Kesy explains she is inspired by both her important role in cybersecurity and as a role model for women and girls. A “strong believer in the education and empowerment of the girl child and women in science and IT,” she strives to serve as a role model to inspire the next generation of women to enter the field.

Young women and girls considering careers in science, technology, and mathematics benefit from strong role models who have advanced in these fields. Kesy’s career and its powerful impact demonstrates the need for dedicated and capable women to work in and lead the cybersecurity industry. In the 21st century, attacks in cyberspace have grown all too common. Cyber criminal activity costs in dollars worldwide would add up to the third largest economy in the word behind the U.S. and China. Beyond criminal enterprises, terror groups and rogue nations constantly probe the defenses of the Federal Government hoping to inflict damage.

Akisha Campbell serves as one of the sentinels on the wall using both plans and people to help to defend the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA).

One of her most essential tasks is using  “GSA’s vulnerability, configuration, and monitoring tools to verify system inventory, perform log reviews, and ensure systems are configured in accordance with GSA security benchmarks.” Akisha also coordinates the efforts of 14 local and regional ISSOs while supporting managers who defend data in both cloud and other networks.

Working at the “forefront of the cybersecurity industry” does not merely involve managing plans set in place. Akisha has to exercise leadership, decisiveness, and attention to detail in ensuring those working with her have the tools and information needed to carry out their tasks in defending GSA from attack.

At Valiant, Lynne Duncan works to safeguard those who work to protect America’s workforce. Just as our coal miners, service-sector employees, manufacturing workers, and millions of others rely on the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), they rely on Lynne’s work to ensure security of both investigations and investigators in cyberspace.

With the onset of COVID-19 as an additional biological threat, the work of NIEHS grows even more vital. Lynne states, “I have been privileged to contribute to the scientific goals of NIEHS by providing a secure environment for the investigators.”

Her work, however, does not end there. Lynne’s responsibilities cover a broad spectrum of needs for Valiant’s work in supporting the mission of NIEHS. She also provides vital support for security applications and appliances to prevent unwanted malware traffic from criminal or terrorist organizations trying to corrupt NIEHS functions. When needed, she also applies years of experience and skill toward investigating cybersecurity threats and incidents.

Lynne makes herself available to pass on knowledge to fellow cybersecurity professionals at Valiant to ensure continuity of standards and excellence over the long term.

In the world of cybersecurity, nothing remains certain except for the expectation of unpredictability. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Cybersecurity Branch depends on Valiant’s Desislava Ehrlich to defend against threats emerging from online.  In her role as ScrumMaster, Desislava has “the opportunity to facilitate an array of projects and product implementations that have national security implications.”

Desislava’s work helps to protect national secrets guarded by DOE against identified threats, but also against what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld referred to as “unknown unknowns.”

Her work instills agility into the cybersecurity process, ensuring DOE can effectively respond to the current threats through compliance by using the latest best practices. Desislava identifies vulnerabilities in both new and existing systems and works with systems and personnel to prevent cyberattacks, if possible, while mitigating damage of those that occur.Taking pride in her work to protect vital data and systems, Desislava says, “This position is one of the most rewarding and challenging I have faced in my career and I look forward to everyday knowing that I'm making a difference!”

Lynnette Jackson’s work as an ISSO helps ensure GSA maintains what NIST calls “the appropriate operational security posture for an information system or program.” This includes monitoring general support systems, major applications, custom built applications, or all of the above.

While risk cannot be entirely eliminated, Lynette’s work reduces the potential for harm from daily threats aimed at GSA. She also works with colleagues and team members to ensure all have the proper information, training, and other resources to help to successfully defend Federal Government assets.

Teamwork is part of the critical foundation of the work Valiant performs, and Lynette ensures planning, processes, and reporting are efficient and effective to keep the team running at peak performance.

As technology advances, the ability of systems to react quickens. Making sure that GSA systems under her purview react promptly enough to fend off damage is Octavia Larentis’ contribution to the Valiant team.

Octavia accomplishes faster and more effective responses by introducing automation to the process. “This automated approach reduces the burden on security administrators,” she explains. Automation results in “leaving more time for GSA to focus on their security posture and tailoring their defenses to the GSA environment.”

Her work ensures the most advanced alerting mechanisms and configurations shield systems from harm. Cybersecurity need not wait on human operators to respond to threats and incidents as Octiva uses her expertise and experience to protect one of the Federal Government’s most vital civilian agencies.

Her hard work and dedication recently earned her the honor of being Valiant’s Employee of the Quarter.

Cynthia Most helps to man cyber barricades that protect GSA’s information systems, infrastructures, and applications. GSA provides vital support to every branch of the Federal Government, making protection of their data, devices, and employees an urgent and important priority.

Cynthia explains how she earned success the old fashioned way, with hard work. She says, “I climbed the ladder one step at a time to arrive at my current position, starting out in a keypunch department as my first IT official role. From there I moved into operations and spent many years as an operator and operations supervisor.”

In every position held, Cynthia has worked to inspire and educate staff rising in the field.  As she explains, “I trained others, wrote training manuals, developed mini programs to run backups, created standard operating procedures, built a tape library and backup procedures, and eventually ran IT operations.”

Each of these tasks helped to establish a foundation of capability and leadership. From there, Cynthia took on the challenges of disaster recovery planning and conducting security audits. These roles required the attention to detail she cultivated since her first day in the field. Identifying and solving problems gives her the most pride when it comes to her work. As she explains, I find satisfaction when identified security gaps are closed and knowing this can prevent security breaches.”

Throughout her career, Cynthia has proven hard work and attention to detail bring superior results in both planning for and responding to cybersecurity challenges.

Thousands work daily to build and monitor the Federal Government’s cyber defenses. Through software, hardware, and planning they seek to keep malefactors from maiming systems and exposing vital data.

Cybersecurity experts, however, do not simply create the defenses. Some professionals, called penetration testers, subject systems to an onslaught of tests that include scanning for vulnerabilities, gathering intelligence about cybersecurity threats, and subjecting systems to incessant false attacks.  

Valiant’s Sharmistha Pal applies years of skill and knowledge in her role of ensuring that federal cyberdefenses remain stout enough to protect both systems and data. Working with intricate precision, she conducts tests, validates findings, and submits reports on potential problems and their solutions. She also must continually research and study the field to stay ahead of emerging threats no matter the source.

Probing cyber defenses serves as one of the most crucial tasks in the industry. Without simulated attacks, such as military war games, experts may miss weaknesses and gaps through which threats can enter.

If an attack anywhere is successful, Sharmistha and other penetration testers can evaluate the problem and make recommendations on how to mitigate future risks. Because cyber attackers always continue to evolve, the Federal Government fortunately can depend on  skilled experts like Sharmistha to ensure networks remain as safe as possible.

In the digital age, devastating attacks can come from cyber sources as well as from missiles, tanks, and bombers. Protecting America’s vital government infrastructure means employing the most proficient and professional individuals in vital positions such as ISSOs.

Valiant’s Jaqui Moore Sherrill serves as a Senior ISSO for GSA. Cybersecurity measures protect GSA operations ensuring it can perform all of its critical services without interruption from attacks.

As an ISSO, Jaqui makes sure software used by GSA remains safe from installation to deactivation. Not only does she work with GSA itself, but also oversees compliance by contractors and other vendors who might otherwise provide malefactors with a backdoor into systems.

Her responsibilities include researching and responding to IT security issues and incidents and remediating any detected vulnerabilities. She conducts Performance Metric Reviews which “are performed biannually to make sure systems are functioning at the most secure levels as possible.”

In an unpredictable world, the Federal Government’s computer systems and networks require constant monitoring and assessment. Rules and guidelines require regular examination of systems undergoing a new or ongoing authorization.

Valiant’s Tameka Yzquierdo makes sure that Federal Government systems under her care meet the highest standards to secure authorization. This involves generating a Security Assessment Plan, conducting walkthroughs to ensure compliance with the plan, and delivering reports on findings.

As Tameka describes, “Overall, my job requires me to assess security controls to ensure they are implemented correctly, operating as intended, and producing desired outcomes with respect to meeting security requirements for the information system.”

She goes on to say that, “The assessment process will ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of the information processed by the information system is protected.”

Both cloud and on-premises systems need regular assessment, because they hold important data from national secrets to private information. The attention to detail and skill demonstrated by Tameka and her colleagues substantially reduce the risk of system damage or loss of data in a cyber attack.

Valiant recently honored Tameka as Employee of the Quarter for her numerous contributions to company success.

Recognizing Women’s Science and Technology Achievements From the Past

We must recognize, however, that our team and women in STEM worldwide stand on the shoulders of giants going back to ancient and classical times.

From Hippocrates to Hawking, history has heartily celebrated men who study, teach, and practice science. Schoolbooks remind students of their contributions to everything including the study of the stars to solving the mysteries of the human body and mind.

All too often, unfortunately, the history of men advancing scientific knowledge shines more brightly from those pages than women.

Certainly their lives and work deserve celebration, but without the inclusion of women the story of science remains woefully incomplete.

More importantly, girls growing up struggling to decide how to contribute to the world miss out on important role models working in science from this century back to antiquity.

For this reason, the United Nations declared February 11th the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The day highlights not only the women whose contributions make the world a better place, but also the struggles they endured simply to work in science and technology.

Agnodice of Athens

The story of women in science dates back almost 5,000 years to Merit-Ptah, official physician to the Pharaoh's court around 2700 BC.

From that time, women trying to break into the field ran against barriers. Male domination of science fostered beliefs that women either could not, or should not, work in fields such as medicine.

Gaius Julius Hyginus, Emperor Augustus’s appointed head of the Roman Palatine library, wrote in his Fabulae about a famous (or infamous!) Athenian physician named Agnodice who lived in the 4th Century BC. In a section entitled, “Who Discovered Or Invented What,” he briefly describes her fight to practice medicine.

Even in democratic Athens, the law prevented women from practicing medicine. To get around the ban, Agnodice turned to the famed anatomist Herophilus as a mentor, cut her hair short, and donned male clothing.

She applied her skill to the treatment of a woman who had “long languished under private diseases,” but whose modesty prevented her from seeking help. Agnodice revealed her own gender, won the patient’s confidence, and cured her ailments. Her patient shared Agnodice’s secret with others suffering from the same or similar ailments.

Soon after, Athenian authorities discovered the ruse. Male physicians noticed that patronage from women patients had dropped off considerably. When discovered, she was indicted by the Athenian version of a grand jury.  

Hopes for justice were restrained by the fact that Athenian justice had just recently ordered the death penalty for even the great Socrates.

Agnodice won reprieve in a moment worthy of Hollywood. Her patients came to the court and accused the accusers, saying, “You are not husbands, but enemies, for you condemn she who discovered health for us.”

Hyginus, whose accuracy on this tale is sometimes questioned, relates that the Athenians relented, changing the law to allow women to practice medicine.

Agnodice remains a powerful symbol for women around the world struggling simply to achieve their dreams of working in science.

Mary Anning, Banned From Polite Scientific Society

Almost 2,000 years later, Western Civilization still took a dim view of women seeking to study science.

Despite the walls constructed to block women from the field, pioneers such as Mary Anning continued to hammer away at the notion that women lacked the skills to contribute to science.

Anning was born in 1799, the daughter of a fossil collecting hobbyist. She grew up in a world still dominated by Enlightenment ideas that helped to give birth to modern science. Anning took the knowledge handed down by her father and applied systematic study.

This paleontological pioneer scoured the cliffs near her home on the cliffs dotting the shores of southern Great Britain. She identified and categorized her finds, then sold them to researchers to support her impoverished mother and siblings after her father’s death. At only 12 years old, she helped to discover the ancient sea predator Ichthyosaur. Later, Anning found the first fossil of another prehistoric marine creature, the long necked plesiosaur.

Those who knew her agreed that Mary Anning was “the greatest fossilist the world ever knew.” The scientific study societies that proliferated in the British Empire at the time, however, refused admission to any woman for any reason.

Marie Curie Joins the Elite of the Scientific World

Only a few generations after Anning, the research and academic community’s acceptance of women drastically changed.

Marie Curie, born in 1867 as Marie Sklodowska in Russian ruled Poland, left her home country to study at the Sorbonne in Paris at the age of 24.

Alongside her husband as an equal partner in both work and fame, Curie rose to eventually direct the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the elite University of Paris. They earned their position and fame as pioneers, joining the first studies of radiation after its discovery in 1896.

Curie and her husband’s work led to the discovery of both polonium, named in honor of her native land, and radium. Work with radium revealed its potential for therapeutic treatments. In 1921, U.S. President Warren G. Harding presented her with an award containing a gram of radium on behalf of the women of the United States. Eight years later, President Herbert Hoover also presented her an award that included a $50,000 grant for further research into radium.

Gertrude Elion Drives Advances in Drug Development at Duke University

Pharmacology pioneer Gertrude Elion’s life sounds like countless other all-American immigrant success stories. Her father arrived in New York City at the turn of the century, coming from the Lithuanian section of the Russian Empire.  

By 1914, he had earned a degree in dentistry. Four years later, daughter Gertrude Elion was born.

Elion recalled that as a child, she enjoyed “an insatiable thirst for knowledge.” At the age of 15, her family lost her grandfather to cancer. This provided direction to her journey toward her developing into one of the nation’s premier researchers into treatments for that horrific disease.

When she graduated from college, Elion found most professional paths closed to her. Women could teach, but not lead research or development. Undeterred, she found a job as an assistant, the highest level that most women could expect to attain.

As World War II emptied private sector laboratories of male professionals, opportunities beckoned. Her thirst for knowledge impressed colleagues and mentors and she finally earned increasingly demanding opportunities.

During the 1950s, forced to choose between laboratory research and pursuit of a Ph.D., Elion opted to end her education and continue work. Advancements that she pioneered in microbiology and chemistry contributed to a new generation of more effective drugs to treat a number of conditions.

Her life’s work earned her a Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988.

At the end of her career, she served numerous research organizations and received appointment as a research professor of medicine and pharmacology at Duke University.

Chieng Shiung Wu Performs Groundbreaking Work In Radiation

12 years after an American president recognized a woman in science, another stepped forward to study radiation, but not for the purpose of saving lives so much as saving the world.

At the end of 1941, National Socialist Germany dominated the continent of Europe and threatened to seize more. Their Japanese allies had decimated the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, seized much of Southeast Asia, and subjected the east coast of the Republic of China to the horrors of occupation.

Shanghai, one of the cities savaged by the war, had already produced a figure known later as “the First Lady of Physics,” Chieng Shiung Wu. Wu would later contribute mightily to developing the weapons ultimately used in Japan’s defeat.

Despite China’s deeply traditional society, her parents encouraged her to study science and mathematics. Inspired by Marie Curie, Wu studied physics when she attended college near her home. By 1936, her studies took her to the University of California at Berkeley where she earned a Ph.D. in 1940.

By 1944, Wu joined the elite team of scientists working on the secret Manhattan Project. From their research came the creation of the atomic bomb that defeated Japan and helped to rescue her homeland. Wu discovered the process by which uranium ore enrichment could produce sufficient material to use in the weapon.

After World War II, Wu emerged as the world’s most eminent expert in beta decay and weak interaction physics. She earned international respect, prominence, and had played a key role in helping to defeat Japan.

Despite this, she still encountered the discouragement of discrimination. Wu had teamed with two male physicists to disprove a previously accepted law of quantum mechanics. Her male counterparts won the Nobel Prize while she saw her contributions ignored by the committee.

This and other slights by the male dominated scientific community led her to muse in 1964, “I wonder whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules, have any preference for masculine or feminine treatment.”

The Truly “Amazing” Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, USN

The winning of World War II would have come with more difficulty if it had not relied on the then record number of scientific doctoral degrees earned by women in the 1920s and 30s. The war created unparallelled opportunities for researchers such as Wu to contribute.

Another leading light of that great generation of women in science, “Amazing” Grace Hopper, laid the foundation for computing while serving her country during World War II and after.

In 1943, Hopper joined the U.S. Naval Reserve. Quickly, her country put her to work with the Bureau of Ships Computation Project based at Harvard University. There, she teamed with Aiken on the project that created the Mark I. This machine was the first to automatically compute arithmetical problems, which helped anti-aircraft guns, rockets, and minesweeper work more effectively.

As programmer, Hopper made a vital contribution to the project’s success. She also created calculations essential for calibrating weapons functions.

After the war, Hopper encountered the same silent systematic barriers against women advancing in science. When Harvard refused to grant her tenure, she moved to the private sector. Corporations recognized her value more than academics, placing her in charge of programming the first generation of actual computers.

She also worked to create user friendly programming languages, advanced their coordination, and even pioneered the use of the term “bug” to describe problems with computer operation (this happened when she literally discovered a moth living inside hardware.)  

Subordinates at the time gave the quick-witted Hopper the nickname “Amazing” Grace.

By 1985, she received promotion to Rear Admiral in the United States Navy and received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the most outstanding award for those in service who did not face combat.

In 2016, President Barack Obama posthumously recognized her work through the awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  

Katherine Johnson’s Hidden Figure At NASA

While Hopper’s work first benefited the military’s efforts to defeat the Axis powers, it also laid the groundwork for another massive national venture, the space program.

Even more so than groundbreakers such as Admiral Hopper and Mary Anning, Katherine Johnson and women like her faced serious barriers to working in science and technology. Difficulties confronted by any woman trying to break into STEM at the time were compounded when that woman happened to be a person of color like NASA’s Katherine Johnson

Born only a few months before the end of World War I in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson, like most children at the time and all children of color, could only advance to the eighth grade in state public schools. To support her gifted intellect, Johnson’s family moved to Institute, just outside the state capital of Charleston. There, she attended the Historically Black College, West Virginia State, and graduated at the age of 18.

Shortly thereafter, in 1939, she accepted admission as the first black woman to attend West Virginia University, pursuing a graduate degree in mathematics.

Johnson launched her career with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, later NASA. She applied her love of, and fascination with, geometry to calculate the trajectories of spacecraft.

She reportedly told officials, "You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I'll do it backwards and tell you when to take off."

Remarkably, just as computers started to apply the potential envisioned by Grace Hopper and others, Johnson remained in demand. After successfully calculating Alan Shepherd’s historic spaceflight, John Glenn requested that Johnson double check the computer’s work on his own.

Glenn remarked, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”

When the U.S. took the next step to break out of Earth’s orbit and travel to the Moon, they required Johnson’s help. She ensured that Apollo 11’s visit encountered no major problems. Even more importantly, Johnson played an invaluable part in ensuring that the mechanical disasters of Apollo 13 did not result in a human tragedy.

Even though not overtly mentioned in the film chronicling the Apollo 13 disaster, Hollywood produced a 2016 movie, Hidden Figures, that portrayed her achievements in science and the social challenges that she had to overcome.

Only a year prior, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama and was honored with the renaming of NASA’s computation research laboratory in her honor.

After ending her active service for the United States government, Johnson shared her other passion. She traveled the country encouraging students to pursue study and careers in science and technology, reminding them that “everything is physics and math.”

Her secret to success? Johnson always strove to go beyond what engineers and others asked of her to provide the full picture of what they needed to get the job done. Even more importantly, she served as a role model to young women everywhere, especially of color.

Johnson said, “I just ignored the social customs that told me to stay in my place.”

She and countless other women for thousands of years refused “to stay in my place,” and thankfully so. They not only drove human understanding farther and faster as a result, these incredible individuals inspire the present and future generations of women flooding into the fields of mathematics, science, and technology.

Because They Deserve More Than Just a Day . . .

We do not see a mere day as sufficient to honor these contributions. Instead, we have taken a week to celebrate the women on our staff, without whom we could not do our job of protecting federal agencies from cyber threats.  

Tireless and dedicated, they and the women on our Valiant team also shine as powerful examples of what women in STEM careers can do for themselves, their communities, and, in the case of our team, their country.