Breaking down torpedoes and barriers along the way
WELL TRAVELED: Mary Wohlgemuth started her career breaking down what caused some torpedoes to work and others to fail, and her approach has led her to be the first woman technical director at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Newport Division.
Everyone has the occasional bad day at work. When Mary Wohlgemuth, technical director at Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport, has a bad day, it could be because a torpedo is malfunctioning.
During her 30-year career, much of that time focused on the development and maintenance of the U.S. Navy’s torpedoes, Wohlgemuth has tackled stressful situations. Once, when a torpedo was not responding correctly, Wohlgemuth was asked to help determine the cause.
“They spent many days and long nights tearing apart the torpedoes to find the one thing that wasn’t responding correctly,” said Capt. Todd Cramer, commander at NUWC’s Newport Division. Was it a high-pressure situation? Definitely.
“But you wouldn’t tell from Mary,” said Cramer. “She’s pretty cool under pressure.”
Wohlgemuth, a civilian employee of the Navy, is the first woman to serve as Newport Division technical director.
She oversees many of the Navy’s underwater weapons and delivery systems, submarines, sonar machines and, of course, torpedoes. She also manages 5,000 people – 2,700 civilian employees and 2,300 government contractors – and a total operating budget of $1.1 billion.
It is, quite simply, a big job, one of the many reasons Wohlgemuth has been named an industry leader for technical services for the 2013 Business Women Awards program of Providence Business News.
NUWC Newport is the Navy’s full-spectrum research, development, evaluation, engineering and fleet-support center. The command’s job is to maintain the U.S. Navy’s undersea superiority by providing the technical foundation for undersea equipment.
Wohlgemuth joined NUWC at age 22 after graduating from Providence College with a bachelor of arts degree in mathematics. At the time, NUWC had begun building advanced-capability torpedoes – a traditional torpedo that had been upgraded to be driven by software.
Working within her team, Wohlgemuth eventually started to lead the analysis of digital information received from fired torpedoes. “I spent my days looking at 3,000 variables on a computer after firing a torpedo, trying to figure out why it worked or didn’t work,” said Wohlgemuth.
If a torpedo failed, Wohlgemuth was asked to figure out why, and she relished the task. “To me, a failure means that you have to dig harder,” she said.
When a branch head position opened, Wohlgemuth decided to go for it.
After another Navy base closed, Newport adopted a team of people that built and managed sonar systems. Wohlgemuth learned how to manage a larger spectrum of employees and a new technical product.
“We got a lot of new people, and we had to integrate them,” said Wohlgemuth. “Plus, it was really an experience for me, because I was coming out of my comfort zone.”
Wohlgemuth earned her master’s degree in public affairs from Indiana University and continued to climb the leadership ladder to head the torpedo systems department. In 2004, she was selected for the senior executive service, the highest rank a civilian can achieve in the Navy and equivalent to an admiral.
She worked in the Pentagon for a year and the Washington Navy Yard for a couple of years. Other assignments took her to Keyport, Wash., and Charleston, S.C.
“It was tough being on the road so much, but it made me so much better-rounded,” said Wohlgemuth. “So by the time this opportunity as technical director came up last year, I understood the business and the complexity of the technical [end] and it made me much more suitable for the job.”
Headquartered in Rhode Island, the NUWC Newport Division operates detached campuses in Florida and in the Bahamas, with remote testing facilities in Seneca Lake and Fisher’s Island, N.Y., and in Dodge Pond, Conn.
The command is the largest federal activity in Rhode Island, and it contracts with companies from all over the Ocean State, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Businesses within Rhode Island received $200 million of the $500 million in contracts obligated to companies nationwide.
In 2011, Wohlgemuth volunteered as president of the Southern New England Parent Association for the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., where her son attends. “She’s a natural born leader,” said Deborah Gallucci, the president of the association.
An active supporter of the Society of Women Engineers, Wohlgemuth initiated a partnership commitment between NUWC’s Newport Division and SWE in 2007. She presented career-path ideas to college students at three of the organization’s national conferences.
Wohlgemuth still reflects on her early days at NUWC, and hopes to foster more young people in the field. She is a member of the 21st Century Engagement Education Technology Initiative, which is Naval Sea System Command’s undertaking to address the shortage in science and technology professionals. •