Written by Beth Miller. Photo by JHUAPL/Ed Whitman.• Winter 2019 Issue
In the five years since she left Washington University in St. Louis, Melissa Holtmeyer has applied the skills she acquired earning three degrees from the McKelvey School of Engineering not in a research lab or classroom, but in the halls of the U.S. government.
Holtmeyer, who earned bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering in 2006 and 2007, respectively, and a doctorate in chemical engineering in 2012, has been working in the Washington, D.C., area in a variety of scientific advisory roles that draw on her expertise in both mechanical and environmental engineering, as well as her networking and communication skills.
Holtmeyer conducting research as a PhD student
Her doctoral work, which focused on fundamental flame theory and emissions trends of biomass in air and oxygen-enriched combustion environments, along with grants she received from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, helped spark her interest in the bigger picture beyond fundamental energy research. Since 2016, she has worked for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) doing both technical laboratory research and military operations analysis projects. She is currently on detail to the U.S. Navy as the study and analysis portfolio lead for the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), the highest-ranking 4-star admiral in the U.S. Navy.
"Working for CNO is a great honor, especially at this point in my career, and he challenges both my technical and analytical skills with his questions," she said. "When at APL, I work at the intersection of technology development and military operations where I must understand the ins and outs of the technical details and the operations in which they will be used."
For Holtmeyer, the role blends her technical skill and her work in engineering policy, which she began in 2013 as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow in the U.S. Senate assigned to Sen. Bernie Sanders' office. In the prestigious one-year fellowship, Holtmeyer helped to craft legislation underpinned by scientific facts, managed Sanders' Senate committee activity and vote recommendations, and wrote floor speeches for Sanders.
Following her year in Sanders' office, Holtmeyer was selected for another AAAS fellowship as a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Science & Technology Policy Fellow for two years.
"I was a science adviser looking at how the use of energy and fuels impacts military operations," she said.
“I was able to do policy interpretation as well as getting into the technical details, such as how the military consumes energy, what types does it need, how much fuel is on a battlefield.”
It was a natural step, then, for her to move to APL, where Holtmeyer uses her technical skills as well as softer skills. She credits her doctoral adviser, Richard Axelbaum, the Stifel & Quinette Jens Professor of Environmental Engineering Science, for allowing her to explore some opportunities that boosted those soft skills, including being a student speaker at the dedication of Brauer Hall and a graduate student representative to the university's Board of Trustees.
"Beyond the traditional opportunities presenting my research at technical conferences, those were my first tastes of communicating to senior leaders and getting a feel for what it would take to do some of these high-visibility, higher-level positions," she said. "If I had not had the ability to communicate effectively or to network or to be able to talk to senior leaders, I would not have had these opportunities in the Senate, the DoD or Navy."
Holtmeyer said the one-year fellowship in the Senate changed her career path.
"I was on this trajectory where I was in pure science in grad school and wanted to try something different, so I went to pure policy in the U.S. Senate," Holtmeyer said. "At the DoD, it was a little more technical and less policy. Now at APL, I have the right balance for me of policy and analysis and back to technical research. I've built a portfolio that combines that, and I can do that all at the same place."