“Innovation is who we are and why we were established.”
Please tell our readers about your role for Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
Aili Kujawa: The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics lab performs research and development on behalf of the Department of Defense, NASA and other federal agencies within the intelligence community.. Our lab has more than 6,000 staff members who are making critical contributions to a wide variety of nationally and globally significant technical and scientific challenges
My role is to do all in my power to support APL’s core purpose:to make critical contributions to critical challenges and create defining innovations that will ensure our nation’s preeminence in the 21st century.
As a member of APL’s senior executive leadership team, I am integrally engaged in our efforts to establish strategic vision for the Laboratory and implement decisions and initiatives to support that strategy. As Director of Talent Services, it is my responsibility to ensure that my staff have the skills, experience and tools they need to effectively and efficiently provide guidance and support to APL’s leaders and staff.
What does APL offer to the academic and scientific communities?
Aili Kujawa: APL staff members routinely engage in research and development work that is interesting to academic and scientific communities from large organizations to small startups and members of academia who are working on leading-edge technologies.
We have extensive collaborations with JHU and other universities through our work in space science, national health, ‘Revolutionizing Prosthetics,’ biology, to name a few. Our space work is renowned for the science that it has produced, recently completing ground-breaking missions to Mercury, Pluto and beyond.
[Our lab’s] ‘Revolutionizing Prosthetics’ program has been an incredible driver of new innovations. The improvements we have made to prosthetics through development of brain-computer interfaces for controlling advanced prosthetic limbs, has made a truly positive impact on our nation’s wounded warriors.
Additionally, we recently established a relationship with Facebook’s “Building 8,” the company’s research and development group, to bring our pioneering brain-computer interface work to support one of their new projects: The project focuses on developing a silent speech interface that will allow users to type 100 words per minute — five times faster than typing on a smartphone — using only their thoughts.
What does innovation mean within Johns Hopkins and do you have any observations on how to be a catalyst for that?
Aili Kujawa: At APL, innovation is who we are and why we were established.
We have found that to be a catalyst for innovation you need:
- Difficult challenges that staff care about solving
- A culture of experimentation that encourages and expects diversity of thought and new ideas
- Leaders willing to try new ideas, approaches and technologies, even when they represent risk of failure; and the ability to look at failure as an opportunity to learn, and not as an end
- Internal investment money that allows APL to fund staff with new and exciting ideas so that they can take their ideas past the conceptual phase, even when there is no customer or external funding
- An exciting, engaging, and fun work environment that pulls engineers and scientists out of their offices and facilitates and encourages collaboration
How would you describe the culture within Johns Hopkins and how does it inform decisions about leadership and human capital?
Aili Kujawa: APL’s culture is mission driven — people come to APL and stay at APL because they care about solving the difficult problems we face in national security, national health, and space science. Because we are driven by a higher purpose than making a profit or stakeholder equity, our staff are extremely dedicated and engaged.
Our human capital decisions are driven by the high value we place on our staff. Our decisions always consider the impact on staff. That doesn’t mean we aren’t willing to make hard decisions when needed, but we do so thoughtfully and with compassion.
What do you see coming in the next few years for APL? What’s next?
Aili Kujawa: We have major investments in a variety of areas and numerous innovation initiatives to promote out-of-the-box and creative thinking, while we continue to push the boundaries of what can be done in our traditional areas, such as air and missile defense, force projection and hypersonics. We also will be advancing our work in cyber much further.
We recently established a focus on national health and are working with Johns Hopkins Medicine to revolutionize precision medicine. We established an Intelligent Systems Center where we are focusing on next-generation robotics, autonomy, and artificial intelligence. We see the merging of humans and machines as potentially game-changing and are exploring area like non-invasive brain-computer interfaces.
And coming up in our Space Sector, we are going to the Sun in 2018 with the Parker Solar Probe! Exciting things on the way for JHU Applied Sciences.