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AFRL scientist passionate about achievements in electromagnetics

  • Published
  • By Jeanne Dailey
  • Air Force Research Laboratory
Making history as the Air Force Research Laboratory Directed Energy Directorate's first woman civilian division chief, Mary Lou Robinson is passionate about the lab and her High Power Electromagnetics Division's scientific achievements in supporting the warfighter.

"High-power electromagnetic signals are extremely effective against electronic systems," Robinson said. "They can produce all types of response, from upsetting a system to damaging that system. One of the greatest aspects is that the signals that so efficiently disrupt computers have no effect on humans. So we can shut down an adversary's computer operations and delay or stop their military progress without harming a soul."

Her division has also been at the core of research into active denial systems with military and civil applications.

"Using focused millimeter waves, we can create an intense heating sensation at the surface of someone's skin, again without harming them, thereby disrupting them from their immediate course of action," Robinson explained. "Leveraged correctly and employed in proper scenarios, high-power electromagnetic technology has the potential to significantly increase battlefield capability by multiplying the effect of conventional weapons alone. My vision is to enable a future where HPEM weapon employment is a reality."

"AFRL is an outstanding place to work for a variety of reasons," she said. "The environment of risk-taking enables innovation and revolutionary advances, the interaction between and appreciation for scientists and engineers of all backgrounds fosters diversity of thought, and having a core budget that allows freedom of investment -- not profit-driven investments -- all create an environment of awe about the possible that we get to tackle every day."

Kelly Hammett, Directed Energy Directorate director, said Robinson is the perfect choice to run the High Power Electromagnetics Division.

"She has the combination of people skills and intelligence as well as the technology and business acumen that we want in our leaders," Hammett said. "She has proven herself time and again during the past 17 years at the lab."

Robinson's father was in the Air Force Reserve, so the idea of serving was familiar to her from a young age. Her real journey into the Air Force began when she was a freshman in high school.

"After my father passed away, my mother returned to work and was employed by my school's guidance office, and the Air Force recruiter came in one day to leave scholarship applications. She brought one home for me that evening," Robinson said. "Several months later I was offered a 3.5-year Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship for mathematics, meteorology or electrical engineering. I accepted the scholarship for an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering."

Robinson would go on to pursue a master's in electrical engineering from the University of New Mexico and an aerospace Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Tennessee.

She has fond memories of growing up in northeast Pennsylvania farmland, almost equidistant from Philadelphia and New York City. 

"I'm the eldest of three children who were fortunate to grow up as world travelers," Robinson said. "Our father worked for Ingersoll Rand in construction of nuclear power plants all around the globe. He would often talk about the safety of nuclear power. I remember one night specifically that he brought home posters about alternative energy -- wind, solar, wave, fission, fusion. I think that's the night I decided engineering might be for me."

Robinson said she receives phenomenal support from her husband, Randy, a 20-year Air Force veteran and civil servant also working in directed energy. 

"Our shared belief of our contribution to national defense and creating a revolutionarily good impact on the nation and the world enables me to challenge the status quo and push the boundaries of the possible, all while having a safe place to land," Robinson said.