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Pioneering Four Decades of STEM: SSP’s Tracy Arnold-Berrios Challenges Barriers, Creates Pathways for Future Generations

28 March 2024

From Lt. Jennifer Bowman

WASHINGTON NAVY YARD - “I’ve been a nerd my whole life,” said Tracy Arnold-Berrios with a soft, confident smile as she sat down at the conference table for a mid-day interview in her office at the Washington Navy Yard.
Director of Integrated Nuclear Weapons Safety & Security at the U.S. Navy’s Strategic Systems Programs (SSP), Arnold-Berrios exhibits the qualities of a poised leader—a woman who has successfully translated the ‘nerd’ of her adolescence into a storied and rewarding career.

She is one of the approximately 53,000 women who serve in the Department of the Navy’s civilian workforce. Twenty-eight percent of the Navy’s civilian leadership in the Senior Executive Service (SES) are women. In 2019, Arnold-Berrios was competitively selected for her SES position—a standing equivalent to a general or flag officer with the DOD.

SSP’s mission is to provide credible and affordable strategic solutions that equip America’s Warfighting Navy to deter strategic attack and underwrite the security of our nation and our allies. Arnold-Berrios’s work at SSP encompasses a critical duty within that mission: overseeing the Nuclear Weapons (NW) security policy, program management, compliance and coordination across the enterprise to support the nuclear mission.

Though she was well-suited to math and science, an engineering career wasn’t the original plan for Arnold-Berrios—and it certainly wasn’t her first pick for college.

“I always wanted to go to med school and my original degree was going to be Chemistry,” she said.

She and her friends—who attended an all-girls catholic high school in the greater Washington, D.C. area—weren’t afraid of shooting for the stars. They were a competitive and determined group of young women who took advanced math and science classes at an all-boys school because there was no available funding for classes at the girls school.

“We were the girls against the world,” she thought aloud—but Arnold-Berrios was also a pragmatic thinker, so when she got to college she decided to slightly alter her plan.

“My first week at Northwestern, I decided I wanted to be an engineer—something that gave me more flexibility if I didn’t, for instance, get accepted into med school.”

And in 1982, Arnold-Berrios graduated with a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering degree from Northwestern University. Her entry into government work was something of a family tradition. Her father had served in the Navy and worked at the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) White Oak where he retired. Her mother worked in Human Resources at NSWC White Oak and later retired from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“Working in government was kind of like the family business,” she said.

In similar fashion, Arnold-Berrios began her career with a job at the NSWC-Indian Head as a manufacturing engineer. She conspicuously advanced through the organization, holding several leadership positions and worked on the development, production, and testing of Energetic Materials.

At the time, she and her peers represented a growing number of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics fields.

“At Indian head, I got to do real work,” she said.

“When you work with the government team of engineers and operators, you get experience early on and exposure to hands-on projects. You also get a lot more responsibility.”

Nearly 20 years later, when Arnold-Berrios began at SSP, she said the work was just as thrilling and interesting. She explained that one of her first big projects was focused on the Ohio-Class Guided Missile Submarine (SSGN) Attack Weapons System Program. The job was to manage concurrent design and production activities including the Demonstration Validation of the first successful launch of Tomahawk missiles from an Ohio-class SSGN.

“The SSGN demonstration validations was an amazing learning experience,” said Arnold-Berrios as she recalled the project’s success in the early 2000s.

“We had to figure out how to get this system ready to launch within 9 months… how do you do that!?” she pondered.

“SSP has afforded me the opportunity to learn a myriad of different things… and you can’t buy that experience.”

But being a female in the STEM career field isn’t always easy. Oftentimes, work-life balance wasn’t afforded in the career path, and women certainly didn’t talk about their families or the balancing-act it was to raise children and work sometimes 60+ hours weekly, Arnold-Berrios explained. The field was difficult to get into, but pioneers like Arnold-Berrios haven’t let gender barriers stand in her way.

According to a study published by the NIH’s National Library of Medicine, women in 1980 were awarded 37.2% of all bachelor's degrees in the fields of science and engineering. But the community of women—as Arnold-Berrios describes them—were determined to continue defying the norms and surpassing glass ceilings.

“We all started—so many of us—we were more determined to succeed and did not let anybody put us in a box,” she said.

Arnold-Berrios noted the barriers in her early career weren’t really about her being a minority woman in the STEM field as much as they were plainly about being a female in the job. She described how the energy in a room would change when she walked in. Even though she didn’t feel her gender was an obstacle in the job, at times, the treatment she received indicated otherwise.

“I think I got my first shock during my first job in a production environment,” she recalled.

“You [women] were just treated worse than your peers.”

Arnold-Berrios shared that in her experiences, women on the job had to prove they would put in the time by working late shifts or weekends, if necessary. She highlighted how she and her female colleagues worked harder to ensure they weren’t the perceived as the weakest link on the team and were always prepared to take on more tasks.

“You always had to ensure you were not the ‘note-taker’ in meetings, and I made a promise to myself to never take minutes or write on the white-board,” she shared.
“Often times, my male colleagues would say ‘your handwriting is better’, but I would not fall into the trap because I knew that anyone on the team was capable of keeping minutes—not just me.”

So, she rose above and refused to accept inferiority—she demanded to be seen and treated as equal to any males on the job. After all, she demonstrated she was just as competitive, working the same long hours and proving highly proficient at technically difficult work. To be a woman in the field—she notes—sometimes you have to accept things won’t be flawless.

“Where I believe sometimes women create barriers for themselves is that they convince themselves everything must be perfect,” she said as she ruminated on times in the past where she had to sacrifice traditional gender expectations with her family to work—or vice versa.

“You’re human and you might not get it right 100% of the time, so you just have to give yourself grace and live for another day.”

Arnold-Berrios’s advice is in sync with what leaders at the highest echelons of the Navy are conveying. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa Franchetti recently shared some wise counsel she was given about taking a seat and exercising your voice at the table.

“As someone told me at a leadership course early in my career, ‘You belong. Don’t subtract yourself from the equation.'"

This champion-like attitude is shared by another flag officer who sits in an office just down the hall from Arnold-Berrios—someone she says has had a tremendous impact on her career at SSP.

“He has always made me stretch and do something different,” she said of Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe Jr, the director of Strategic Systems Programs.

“‘Get out of your comfort zone,’” she recalled with a smile—a mindset Vice Adm. Wolfe consistently verbalizes to the SSP workforce.

“He always had another job for me to do, just as I was getting comfortable in my current position… but I would not be here today if he didn’t do those things. His vision was advanced and focused on the future.”

This is the same type of sharp guidance a trusted and respected mentor like Arnold-Berrios communicates daily to her peers and subordinates. To no surprise, Arnold-Berrios is an active mentor at SSP and holds one-on-one mentoring sessions as well as group gatherings to impart what she’s learned—to women and men alike.

“I’ve considered Tracy a personal mentor of mine for almost 10 years,” said Megan Donnelly, who heads SSP’s Infrastructure Requirements Integration section.

“She is like a master orchestrator, guiding and leading, while empowering individuals to step into much larger roles.”

Donnelly describes her experience at SSP as “very supported” and says there is a growing community for women supporting women and encouraging women at all ages and career stages to take on additional leadership roles. While working at SSP, she has had the opportunity to move through various positions while taking on various responsibilities and being delegated authorities to execute the job—something that Arnold-Berrios also said during our interview.

“The admirals at SSP have allowed me to own my triangle in every job I have had here: responsibility, accountability, and authority,” Arnold-Berrios said.

“This type of leadership philosophy allowed me to be able to succeed or fail on my own because I owned it from start to finish.”

Donnelly’s experience is the same and she highlighted the culture as one of the best facets of working at SSP.

“The command invests in the individual both personally and professionally through additional training, rotations, and leadership development opportunities,” Donnelly said, adding that she sees Arnold-Berrios leading the way in both technical expertise and strategic thinking across the enterprise.

Donnelly’s colleague, Regan Hinman, shares the same assessment of Arnold-Berrios. Hinman works as the Naval Industrial Reserve Ordnance Plant Program Manager for SSP’s branch that handles strategic weapons system Enterprise Infrastructure and Capabilities.

“I have personally benefitted from Ms. Arnold-Berrios’s mentoring by gaining an understanding of the nuances and importance of being strategic and deliberate in my communication style and decisions to help further my objectives and visions as a woman in STEM,” said Hinman.

She reflected on how Arnold-Berrios takes a “tailored” approach to mentoring which gives the mentee a unique way to understand their strengths as assets and their weaknesses as opportunities for growth. Donnelly noted the women in STEM are still considered a minority.

“[The] levels of representation can sometimes be intimidating when you walk into a briefing room and feel like the odd one out,” she said.

“I believe that it is important to be able to build a community in all aspects of life, and I also believe there is very strong sense of community shared among women in STEM, especially at SSP.”

Hinman added that Arnold-Berrios takes a deliberate approach to understand people at an individual level—taking into account their values, motivations, and experiences.

“One basic principle all people share is that we want to feel connected to the people we work with and the mission we support,” she said, noting that SSP has given her a very strong sense of shared community among women in STEM.

Back at the conference table, I asked Arnold-Berrios about the future of SSP—given the challenging strategic environment the United States faces around the globe—and she said she believes the command is at a pivotal point.

“We are at this moonshot moment, and there is so much possibility in the future—and it’s going to prosper for a long time.”

“We must empower our workforce to innovatively solve complex technical challenges—today and in the future—which ultimately strengthens our ability to secure our Nation,” she continued.

She said more must be done to attract and retain talent at a command like SSP, and said the Navy should seek ways to better connect today’s youth to STEM programs.

“At the high-school level, kids don’t often understand how doing the math might one day translate to developing a missile that flies into space.”

She pointed out that today’s young generations aren’t as exposed to STEM fields—especially in underrepresented communities—and that’s where the disconnect comes in recruiting before the collegiate level.

Finally, she discussed how important it is for women in STEM to be their greatest advocates and said, more broadly, that SSP must do the same in order to adequately meet its vital charge.

“Every dollar that is invested in SSP brings nothing but value for the DoD and our country.”

Equally as significant is building trusted and long-lasting relationships and partnerships, which is high-value currency at a command like SSP.

“We all must be well-positioned to represent our command, and the military, contractor, and industry partnerships we build today will successfully mature SSP’s mission far into the future,” Arnold-Berrios said.

Arnold Berrios typifies the excellent qualities leaders of all genders should embody in order to successfully contribute to the mission. She is living proof that relationship building; hard work and dedication to mission; staying true to yourself; and taking care of your people—at every career level—are worth their weight in gold.


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