Dreams come true for Air Force STEM Champion

  • Published
  • By Jeanne Dailey, Air Force Research Laboratory Public Affairs
  • Air Force Research Laboratory
KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. (AFRL) - “I grew up in Dixon, a small town in northern New Mexico, where the skies were dark, the stars bright, and I had vivid dreams of becoming an astronomer, sitting on top of a mountain with my telescope,” said Dr. Imelda Atencio, who was recently announced as the Department of the Air Force 2021 Outstanding Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Outreach Champion Award winner.
Today, Atencio leads the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Directed Energy Directorate’s Laser Division located on Kirtland AFB, where she is responsible for over 200 scientists, engineers and staff, conducting research in advanced laser technologies, laser effects, atmospheric turbulence mitigation, and laser system experiments. 
Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, dreams of being an astronomer were not popular nor encouraged for young girls.
“As I progressed through middle and high school, I always had this thought that if I ever made it as a scientist/engineer, I wanted to go back to northern New Mexico and get kids interested in math and science,” Atencio said. “I thought it was so exciting, that everyone should have that opportunity to learn. A large goal for a pretty naïve kid.”
Atencio pursued her STEM education, receiving a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and Master’s and Doctorate degrees in Optical Sciences from the University of Arizona in Tucson. She joined the AFRL workforce in 1987, and just marked her 35th anniversary, serving the nation as a federal civil servant.
During one of her early jobs in the mid-1990s, as a researcher at the lab’s telescope site, the Starfire Optical Range, Atencio got her start as an active participant in the STEM outreach program when she volunteered for an Astronomy Day event the Albuquerque Astronomical Society was sponsoring.
“Around the same time, I was also involved in the local Optical Society of America (OSA) now called Optica,” she said. “Our organization bought these recently developed optics kits, and we gave them to schools with the stipulations that one of the OSA members had to go into the classroom and demonstrate the kits to the students and teachers. These two events became the genesis of my outreach activities.”
Atencio went on to become immersed in the robust AFRL STEM Academy on Kirtland that reaches hundreds of students, teachers and communities across New Mexico each year.
“I have had the pleasure of working with Dr. Atencio in STEM activities for more than 20 years,” said Ronda Cole Harmon, who is the director of the AFRL STEM Academy. “We first connected in 1998, when Imelda agreed to help us with the development of STEM outreach activities for middle school students. Her efforts on those activities provided a framework for the STEM Academy outreach program that exists today.”
Harmon had some revealing words to express regarding Atencio’s award.
“The word champion has two definitions -- a person who fights for a cause; and a person accepted as better than all others,” Harmon said. “Dr. Atencio epitomizes a STEM champion in every sense of the word. She has an incredible track record of sharing her passion for STEM to inspire students of all ages that spans a lifetime. In 2020, she went above and beyond to help the STEM Academy emerge victorious as we abruptly pivoted from in-person to virtual outreach activities during the pandemic.”
Atencio relates a particularly favorite story from working with countless AFRL STEM Academy students.
“One afternoon I was at the Albuquerque Zoo, walking with my son to the giraffes, and I heard this young lady calling out. I stopped and she came running up, introduced me to her mom and said, ‘This is the professor that taught me how to bend light.’ I was thrilled to find out I had made an impact in this young girl’s life, as I never really know what, if any, results my efforts have produced.”
In addition to STEM advancement, Atencio is passionate about the importance of the Department of the Air Force recruitment efforts. She has led recruiting teams to a number of technical conferences, and outreach teams to academic institutions, resulting in the mining of untapped talent pools for AFRL personnel needs.
“STEM and recruitment programs are critical in creating and supplying the next generation of AFRL and DAF scientists, engineers and researchers,” Atencio said. “We need STEM programs at all grade levels, to not only get kids interested in math and science, but to help them see they can become a scientist, engineer or researcher.” 
She continued by saying that encouraging graduate-level completion is extremely important, as the number of US citizens in our graduate schools has declined, making it much more difficult to hire highly specialized and educated candidates, as we are competing with the “Googles” of the world.
AFRL senior leaders from across the lab recognize Atencio as a leader from her strong skills as a department head, to her passion for STEM outreach and recruitment.
“Dr. Atencio epitomizes the well-rounded leader and spokesperson for the work we do in AFRL, and specifically in Directed Energy,” said Dr. Kelly Hammett, who leads the Directed Energy Directorate. “I value and admire her tenacity in STEM efforts over several decades of dedicated service. In addition, her recruitment prowess has garnered the directorate more than a dozen, smart young scientists and engineers. Through R&D we want to give our warfighters the best people and technology possible to defend our country and Imelda does that every day.”
About AFRL
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space, and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: www.afresearchlab.com.