Mary Lou Robinson's 'Hot' Technology
Magnetrons and Gyrotrons Are All in a Day's Work
Growing up with a father who traveled the world to work on nuclear power plants was a nice introduction to the sciences for Mary Lou Robinson. As a child, she enjoyed her time on airplanes as her family moved around the globe. She recalls wanting to be a stewardess until her mother asked, "Why don't you want to be the pilot?"
Those experiences helped shape Robinson's career. Today she works as deputy chief of high-power microwave technologies at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M.
At the New Mexico lab one area of Robinson's expertise is active denial technology -- a nonlethal heat ray that barely penetrates a person's skin but causes extreme discomfort. The sensation quickly goes away when the subject moves out of the beam.
After experiencing a shot from the device, Robinson says the effect is "startling, even when you know exactly what it is going to do. The day I was hit, a kind of overcast drizzly day, I was moving out of the way as soon as I was hit," she says. "The sensation was like being too close to a fire."
She is proud of the technology's safety. "A lot of what we do here are nonlethal weapons," she says. "I like working for the Air Force, and the military, and yet working on a project that is not designed to hurt people."
Not only does she collaborate with a diverse group of people dedicated to making a beneficial product, but the work is fun — "we get to break stuff," she says — and the equipment is top-quality. "We work with machines like magnetrons and gyrotrons," she says. "These are terms I really didn't know before I worked here."
So what do they mean? "A magnetron is like what is in a microwave," she explains. "We use slightly different, more powerful ones, not to heat up food but to disrupt electronics. We do tests where we buy computers, put them in front of the beams, and break them. We even have one project where we get to use explosives."
While Robinson took as many science and math classes as possible in high school, she was not consumed with the coursework or a geek lifestyle. When she went to college, it was to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to pursue electrical engineering on an ROTC scholarship. After graduating she spent six years in the U.S. Air Force and then went to work as a government civilian at Kirtland, where she observed how the lab researchers work. "When I saw what the lab did I was not intimidated," she recalls. "I said, 'I can do that.'"
For middle- or high-school students with an interest in engineering, Robinson, who also has a master's degree from the University of New Mexico, suggests testing out those skills. "Don't be afraid," she says. "Try taking some things apart at home. If you like figuring out how things work, no matter how silly the project, you can be a scientist. Even cooking is chemistry if you think about it. You don't have to be some big brainiac who goes and enters the science fair. I never did that, and yet I'm doing well in a job I love."