FORMER PENTAGON OFFICIAL DELORES ETTER MAY WELL BE THE MOST
SOUGHT AFTER ENGINEER IN THE POWER CORRIDORS OF THE NATION'S
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
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
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
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
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,
She can be reached at email@example.com.