In life and at work, Valerie Gawron, MBA ’88, lives by a simple motto: She’ll try anything once, as long as it’s legal and moral.
Gawron has jumped out of an airplane and met the King and Queen of Bhutan. She’s tangoed in Buenos Aires and wept at the sites of some of the world’s worst atrocities. She’s gone diving in Palau and climbed a mountain — though, she quips, it was “only” a 14,000-foot ascent.
“In my family, I was taught to have an open mind and keep learning,” Gawron explains. “I don’t want to become an old fuddy-duddy, and the only way I know to do that is to always try new things.”
In total, she has traveled to more than 195 countries, including every member of the United Nations and its observer states.
“The most wonderful thing I’ve learned is that everybody is the same,” Gawron says. “I remember being with a group in Gabon, and to the Western world, they had almost nothing. But they were rich; they said, ‘We have more than enough food, we have our loved ones around us and we have interesting work to do.’ People just want to enjoy life and have what they need so their family can prosper.”
Gawron’s career as an engineer has taken her to incredible places, too.
To get there, she earned five degrees, including her MS in industrial engineering from UB, an MBA from the UB School of Management, and a PhD in engineering psychology from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. By the time she came to UB in 1986, Gawron had already been working as an engineer at Calspan for several years.
“I was leading programs totaling over a million dollars at Calspan,” Gawron recalls. “Combining an MBA with my industrial engineering background gave me credibility in planning meetings.”
“My marketing class was fantastic,” she continues. “It opened my eyes to new methods and gave me metrics to measure success beyond the amount of dollars we brought in. How were we advancing science and making an impact?”
In 2007, Gawron joined her current employer, MITRE, which operates six federally funded research and development centers. She immediately got to work on an important project.
“Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 showed us that federal agencies have great procedures, but they don’t test them together,” she says. “I ran experiments looking at how we’d respond to a 9/11 scenario, a cyberattack that opened the prisons, hurricanes and a pandemic — way before this pandemic — and when we were done, people immediately made changes their policies and software.”
Throughout her career, Gawron has specialized in human systems integration, or the process of optimizing technology for different users and situations. For example, in one project, she took the head-up display that fighter pilots use and adapted the technology to help drivers at night and first responders in search-and-rescue missions.
“It’s about understanding the technology and its unique characteristics, and then applying it to different groups,” she says. “I mean, a firefighter, a driver and a fighter pilot — that's about as diverse a population segment as you can get, but that’s what excites me.”
Along the way, she has served on the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, Army Science Board, Naval Research Advisory Committee, and National Research Council. She’s evaluated security systems at airports and U.S. embassies, and written more than 240 publications, including nine books.
But even with all of those accomplishments, Gawron says she most relishes her role as a mentor, working with early-career engineers at MITRE and hosting workshops for young girls with the Sally Ride Science Festival.
“This stage of my career is about helping the next generation be the best they can be,” she says. “On team projects, I ask the hard questions to help our team learn, so the next time they can say, ‘Valerie would ask this question.’ That’s incredibly rewarding.”
Written by Matthew Biddle