NAME: Monica Aahana Bernard
NSIN AFFILIATION: Hacking for Defense Alum
AFFILIATION: Computer Scientist at NAWCTSD, U.S. Navy
Q: What inspired you to explore the national security community? Do you have a connection to the Military/Government Service?
Yes, I do work for the U.S. government, but first I want to start off by giving a little background on how I ended up working for the U.S. Department of Defense. I grew up in India and lived there for most of my life. Growing up, I always knew I wanted to do something different with my career. The corporate private industry did not appeal to me, so I began to seek out and explore my options. I chose to pursue an undergraduate degree in Electronics and Communication Engineering.
Shortly after graduation, I got married and moved to the United States in 2015. I had a desire for continued education, so I worked as a tutor in my in-laws’ tutoring business to help pay for my graduate degree in Computer Science at the University of Central Florida (UCF).
During the last semester of my graduate degree, I was selected to be one of 18 students to take part in UCF’s first Hacking for Defense (H4D) course (sponsored by NSIN). As part of our coursework, we were assigned a project where we had to find a creative solution to an existing issue for the DoD. We interviewed several experts related to our project (military and civilian) to help guide us to the best solution. As we progressed through the semester and got to the final stages of our project, I gained a deeper appreciation for the men and women in uniform. So, when I was offered a job to work for the U.S. Navy near the end of my final semester, I jumped at the chance to be a part of something bigger than myself. Since August of 2021, I’ve been working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD) as a computer scientist.
Q: As a woman, how is the national security community different for you?
We, as a society, have created certain stereotypes for different professions. Knowingly or unknowingly, there can be an inherent bias in who is expected to do what. One such idea is that engineering is not for women.
A few years ago, my husband and I were waiting in line for a ride at Disney. We happened to overhear a young girl telling her father that she didn’t like physics and that she didn’t see the point of learning it because it wasn’t a career path she could pursue. When her dad inquired about why she felt that way, the girl mentioned that her teacher had made a statement saying that physics was mostly for guys that liked to tinker with things. At that point, I could no longer contain myself – I turned around and told her that her teacher was mistaken. I told her that I had studied electrical engineering, a subject closely related to physics, and that it’s not just for boys. Her dad was very appreciative of the fact that his daughter could hear it from a woman that was in the industry.
I am not sure if that girl decided to pursue physics after that, but it makes me wonder how many other women are discouraged from entering STEM related fields because of similar statements made by people around them. There is a lot of evidence that this notion is slowly changing with time but there’s plenty of work to be done.
In my experience so far, I’ve encountered very few women in the national security community, let alone engineering in the national security community. I currently work in a lab where my coworkers are predominantly male, except for one other female coworker. All my coworkers are extremely supportive of me and do not differentiate between either gender. I just hope that as we move forward, the powerful and challenging job positions in our community become more accessible to women, because we can do it just as well as men can.
Q: What legacy do you want to leave for the next generation of women professionals in the innovation ecosystem?
I want the next generation of women to know that they don’t need to settle for anything less than what they want in life. When I first moved to the United States, I started working as a tutor in order to pay for my graduate degree in computer science. It was a very comfortable job with very little stress, but I had my sights set on something more for myself. I had plenty of people ask why I even bothered pursuing another degree when I could just take over the family business.
The pressure to stay in my tutoring position was quite high, but I eventually made the decision to leave. I am very content with the decision I made, despite how difficult it was to leave a comfortable situation. This is exactly what I want to show our future generation. It doesn’t matter what the situation is, you might be married, have kids, already have a job, or you might just have people telling you it’s a bad choice; never settle for anything less than what you want in life. There should be nothing stopping a woman from dreaming big and achieving big.
Q: Do you remember a moment when you saw a difference for women in the professional world? What do you remember? How did it impact your work?
Often, women must go the extra mile to prove their capabilities. I’ve heard some women talk about their difficulties of being compared to male coworkers, and my heart goes out to them. I want them to stay strong and to show everyone that they are just as capable.
I am honestly blessed with a workplace environment where I do not see a difference in the way a person is treated with regard to their gender. I have very supportive coworkers. If anything, this has helped me do my job better and be more committed to doing what I do at work.
Q: What books, podcasts, or thought leaders do you recommend when it comes to Women’s History Month and understanding the issues facing women in the workplace?
I look up to Michelle Obama, the former first lady of the United States. Like me, she is a woman of color and came from a heavily male-dominated industry. While in office, she made an impact by establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and all around the world. Her book “Becoming” is a great way to showcase how she found her voice and made an impact. In her own words: “Success isn’t about how much money you make; it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.” This is one of my favorite quotes because I truly believe that statement.