Prism Magazine - March 2003
America's Newest Export
Scaling The Ranks
Palace of Science
The Sky's The Limit
On Politics
Teaching Toolbox
ASEE Today
Last Word
Back Issues

Scaling the Ranks

- By Susan Lapinski      


On her way to a meeting in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Delores Etter was headed down a long hallway in the Pentagon. "As I walked along, I was pinching myself," she recalls with characteristic modesty. "How can I be getting this chance to help with problems of national security and work on such incredible things?"

With the special combination of political savvy and technological know-how, Etter has become indispen-sable at this time of heightened security for the nation. Often called a national resource by those in the engineering arena, the self-described "little girl from Oklahoma" is an internationally recognized authority on digital signal processing who can explain complicated weapon systems to senators on the Armed Forces Committee. She also understands how policy is made, knows the budget process through and through, and is accessible enough to steer university administrators and researchers through the bureaucratic maze.

An expertise in digital signal processing—the digital analysis of signals ranging from the human voice to earthquake rumblings—is in itself enough to make her welcome at national security meetings. Add her years of experience as the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Science and Technology, and the fact that she holds a distinguished chair at the U.S. Naval Academy, and it's easy to see why she stands out in the corridors of power.

For groundbreaking accomplish-ments in advancing her field, Etter has been the recipient of many honors, including the 1998 Harriet B. Rigas Award, given each year to one outstanding woman engineering educator by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers; the 2000 Federal WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) Lifetime Achievement Award; and the 2001 Secretary of Defense Outstanding Public Service Medal. "She's been a Joan of Arc on behalf of science and technology," says U.S. Senator Pat Roberts (R–Kans.), an advocate of increased investment in national security. He remembers leading a round of applause for Etter when he worked with her on the Senate's Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee. "She was the only woman at the table during budget negotiations, and she was instrumental in keeping the budget on track," the Senator recalls. "She brought the different branches of the armed services together. She got rid of the infighting. She did it by being this non-threatening but firm person who let everyone know that she knew more than they did."


That quiet resolve has served Delores Etter well all her life. Born Delores Van Camp, she was raised in Shidler, Okla., a rural town of about 500 people. "It was a wonderful place to grow up, with a wonderful school system," she recalls. In high school, she had women teachers for both math and chemistry courses and thinks that they served as good role models. But Etter's own aptitude also guided her at a time when few women were looking to careers in math and science. "I was good at math and confident about my academic abilities."

That confidence may have helped her brush off her high school principal's suggestion that teaching and nursing were the only appropriate career fields for girls to consider. "It didn't make me mad, but I remember thinking, ‘That's not right. There should be many opportunities for girls, too.'" She made her supportive parents proud by being the first in her family to go off to college. It was 1965. She wasn't sure what to major in at Oklahoma State University. "But I liked math a lot, and I took all the computer courses I could," she recalls. Between sophomore and junior years she married a fellow student, Jerry Etter. The Vietnam War was at its height, and she followed her husband, who was in Officers' Training School, to Texas and then Ohio. Despite the moving around and pressures of a military wife, Etter stuck with her education, attending the University of Texas at Arlington for a semester, and then Wright State University in Dayton.

After finishing her bachelor's degree in mathematics, Etter decided to stay on at Wright State and earn her master's in mathematics, too. The family now included baby daughter Amy, and her husband could watch the baby while Etter was in night school. "Taking night classes worked out well family-wise," she recalls.

The math department chair at Wright State talked her into teaching a night class. Etter discovered she really enjoyed teaching. So when her husband was transferred to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, she continued to teach part time at the University of New Mexico (UNM). She also enrolled in an electrical engineer-ing course there, and had a eureka moment. "The course pulled everything together for me," she recalls. "It showed me how to use computers to solve real problems for which people needed answers."

In Albuquerque she had one of the most formative experiences of her life, working at Sandia National Laboratories for Sam Stearns, an eminent researcher in signal processing. Stearns became her mentor: "He guided me into the world of research, co-authored my first research paper, and introduced me to a number of his research colleagues," says Etter. "He opened many doors for me."

But Stearns gives a lot of the credit to Etter. "I may have been a good door-opener, but she ran through it," he says with a laugh. "Delores was excellent not only technically but in her ability to work with other people and cooperate on projects." He remembers Etter, too, for being "the most well-rounded person I've ever met up with."

Etter's interest in digital signal processing grew during her summers at Sandia. "It's not just theoretical. Anyone can see the benefits." She ticks off the way the technology can be applied to everything from voice-controlled wheelchairs to airline communications to car-navigation systems to national security. "In a world full of worry about security, the human voice, which is as unique to each person as a fingerprint, can be used to determine if the right person is trying to get in," she explains.

In 1979, Etter completed her Ph.D. under Stearns's guidance at UNM, where he was also a professor in electrical engineering. She was the first woman to get her doctorate in electrical engineering at UNM and one of only 11 women in the nation to earn a Ph.D. in electrical engineering that year.

For the decade between 1979 and 1989, Etter worked as a faculty member at UNM in the department of electrical and computer engineering. Besides the usual academic research and writing, she authored several engineering text books on computer languages. During the 1983-84 academic year, she held the distinguished National Science Foundation visiting professorship in the electrical engineering department at Stanford University.

But changes were once again afoot. Etter became a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Colorado, while her husband, now out of the Air Force, joined Ball Aerospace in Boulder.

Etter taught at the University of Colorado between 1990 and 1998. She was a part of an influential digital signal processing group there, and another door was about to open for her. The U.S. military needed university researchers to consult on technical issues, and after decades of watching from the sidelines as a military wife, she was asked to serve. First she was invited to join the Air Force Science Advisory Group, then the Naval Research Advisory Committee. "I learned a lot about their technologies, and met key leaders in the military and business," Etter recalls.

As her network of contacts grew, she was invited to be on the Defense Science Board at the Pentagon. This group met quarterly and brought together people to advise the Secretary of Defense. Etter found it exciting to learn about important problems of national security and help solve them.

In June, 1998, when Etter was named the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Science and Technology, her role was to provide leadership and allocate, execute, and evaluate the program's $9 billion-a-year budget. Other parts of the job included coordinating the collaborative efforts of the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) countries in science and technology; representing the United States on the NATO Research and Technology Board; and being the senior civilian in charge of the Defense Department's high-energy laser research program. "She played such a strong role in helping the military leap ahead in terms of technology," says Senator Roberts.

Etter stayed in the job for three years and says it was "the neatest thing you can imagine. I had personally experienced the way education opens doors for us to do whatever we want to do, and now I was helping people in the military understand the importance of university research."

After finishing her work at the Pentagon, she was asked by her defense colleagues to join the electrical engineering faculty at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. She became the first recipient of the Office of Naval Research Distinguished Chair in Science and Technology, and is the only woman among three full professors in the academy's electrical engineering department. Women account for only 4.4 percent of tenured professors in engineering nationwide. "I love teaching and research, and here was a chance to do it for the next generation of military leaders," Etter says.


"Professor Etter has such a high civilian rank in the military and has accomplished a lot," says Midshipman Natalie R. Frantz, who has taken two of Etter's courses. Frantz is the only woman in her class of third-year midshipmen to major in electrical engineering. "It's always reassuring to see women who have scaled the ranks and are respected in their field," she adds. "They provide a path for the rest of us."

Etter also provides a strong role model at home. Her daughter, who followed her mother's and father's path into science, is a veterinarian in Seattle.

Today, besides walking the brick paths of Annapolis, Etter is once again pacing those long Pentagon hallways as a returning member of the Defense Science Board. "After 9/11," she says pensively, "having an opportunity to stay involved in national security is especially important to me."


Susan Lapinski is a freelance writer based in Swarthmore, Pa.
She can be reached at


Mail Prism