Two tenets of Georgia Tech Research Institute’s (GTRI) mission are to “improve the human condition” and to “educate future technology leaders.”
Carlos Davila, chief engineer in the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Division (ISRD) of Sensors and Electromagnetic Applications Laboratory (SEAL), and a principal research engineer, embodies them in his professional and personal work.
As a principal research engineer, Davila’s primary duty is to conduct research in his areas of expertise, including radar systems analysis and electronic warfare. He also has served as a project director on multiple efforts over his GTRI career, which began in 2003.
As chief engineer, Davila supports the division chief in the general management and support of the division researchers, including hiring, onboarding, project staffing, mentoring, and professional development. Some of his duties include managing the division’s professional development budget and direct supervision of the division’s senior staff, which is akin to a branch head role.
The Road to Principal Research Engineer
Davila’s own development and engineering education had a slightly different impetus than what many engineers experience.
“I didn’t grow up wanting to be an engineer,” Davila said. “In high school, my entire class took an aptitude test, and later my school counselor reviewed the results with me. She pointed me in the direction of engineering as an occupation I could be good at and which happened to be in demand. In college, I learned to appreciate the use of mathematical principles to solve specific problems. I was always good at math, but in engineering, math is not an end unto itself, but a means to an end.”
“My engineering education and career have been largely positive and fulfilling, I must say,” he added. However, he also strongly embraces another aspect of his personal and professional development.
“I did have a bit of a part-time military career, as I served in the Army Reserve for about 11 years. I joined as an enlisted straight out of high school, went through ROTC in college, and earned a commission as a second lieutenant.”
His academic education was simultaneous to, and intertwined with, his military career.
“After an educational delay to complete my master’s degree, I attended Officer Basic Course (OBC) in Fort Gordon, Ga., where I served as class leader.”
Negative experiences also served to mold the person and professional Davila is now.
“Now, I wouldn’t be the person I am today without those experiences, and I would do it all over again. I met many great people that made me better. Having said that, I found that even though the U.S. Army is one of the most diverse institutions in American society, it was not—at least in the ‘80s and early ‘90s—the most inclusive.”
Davila’s time in the Army made him focus on his station as a Hispanic person in the United States after growing up in Puerto Rico.
"I was all of 18 years old, weeks out of high school, after living my entire life on a small island and in a Spanish-first environment. I could read and write in English, but my conversational skills left a lot to be desired. Over the next several summers, I received a crash course on being an “English as a Second Language” minority immersed in the U.S. Army culture in bases all over the South: Fort Jackson, S.C., for basic training; Fort Eustis, Va., for Advanced Individual Training (AIT); Fort Bragg N.C. for ROTC Advanced Camp, Fort Knox, Ky., for Cadet Troop Leadership Training; and Fort Gordon, Ga., for Annual Training and for OBC."
"It was a little rough back then. I got yelled at for speaking Spanish with my buddies during our free time. I was made fun of for my accent. In AIT, I was passed over for Honor Graduate even though I was far and away the top student in my class. Even at OBC, already a Commissioned Officer and the Class Leader, a full Colonel openly joked about my accent to my face and in front of my peers."
He says he learned from the negative experiences, which were “vastly outnumbered by wonderful experiences and amazing relationships.”
“One principle that was ingrained in me from this period in my life was to always treat everyone with respect, regardless of their lot in life,” Davila said. “I also committed myself to treat people as individuals and avoid the stereotypes that come from considering people as members of a group.”
Using His Skills to Uplift Others
Helping to improve others’ lives is now an intrinsic part of Davila’s life. Davila is instrumental in the professional development of SEAL researchers. He manages initiatives such as the Principles of Modern Radar (POMR) Book Club, which is open to all SEAL researchers. Also, he serves as chair of the SEAL peer-review committee for GTRI’s promotion process.
Outside of GTRI, he has done a lot of outreach with young people.
His wife, Gloria, worked in the Cherokee County School District for several years. During that time, she facilitated Carlos making multiple visits to the schools she worked in, specifically, Hasty Elementary in Canton and Canton Elementary. Both of these schools have majority Hispanic student enrollments.
"I had the opportunity to meet with several groups of students from different grades. I prepared a presentation, which I delivered in both English and Spanish. I would start by telling them a little about me and where I’m from (Puerto Rico), even showing them the island [using] Google Earth. I would then speak about engineering careers in general, and specifically a little about what I do, what a radar is, etc."
"That would lead into talking about Georgia Tech, including some renowned engineers that went to school there. We count a couple of astronauts among our alumni; people like John Young, who walked on the moon; and Sandra Magnus, who was in the International Space Station, and flew on the very last mission of the Space Shuttle program. I’d close the presentation by running an interactive session of Matlab, where I’d let students run scripts that would show some cool animations and other interesting demos. The whole point was to inspire them and open their eyes to possibilities they may not consider otherwise."
Another activity Davila was heavily involved with was with the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). His son Gabriel joined the Cub Scouts in 2005, and Carlos joined in as an adult volunteer, eventually becoming Assistant Den Leader. In 2008, Carlos became Scoutmaster of Troop 8880 in Canton, Ga.
“Being bilingual, I was asked to lead adult classes such as Youth Protection Training in Spanish to parents and volunteers from the Hispanic community outside of my Scouting District,” said Davila. “I also facilitated meetings between the AAC [Atlanta Area Council of Boy Scouts of America] and Hispanic community leaders to establish a BSA Troop for Hispanic children in Cherokee County.”
“Hands down, however, the best part of ‘the job’ was to work with the boys in my troop and help develop their leadership and organizational skills so they could organize their own activities and run the troop themselves.”
GTRI Principal Research Engineer Emeritus Robert C. Michelson, who worked with Davila as an advisor to Boy Scouts of America Troop 8880, said of Carlos: “Davila is the most dedicated and effective Scoutmaster, bar none. He uses his professional engineering skills, many of which were learned at GTRI, and some gleaned from his Army career, to show the Scouts how to lead.”
“I was Senior Class President in high school, but that was largely a popularity contest. I had no concept or notion of what it was like to be a leader, so I made a lot of mistakes,” Davila remembers. “Many key concepts such as dealing with pressure situations, communicating effectively, taking personal responsibility, handling criticism, and avoiding conflicts of interest, are not things that necessarily come naturally—they have to be taught!”
Davila has had many personal and professional accomplishments—and led and inspired others to become accomplished in their lives as well. He says he is in a place of happiness and fulfillment.
“I’ve had a fulfilling career. I’ve worked on challenging projects, been to interesting places, and met wonderful people. I don’t have any career ambitions left and very few items on my bucket list. One leftover goal I had was to write a book, and I am now working on one. I also enjoy teaching professional education short courses with Georgia Tech Professional Education (GTPE) and would like to continue doing so even beyond retirement.”
“So, I’m content; I’m at a place where I know I’m making a positive difference, and between now and retirement, I’d like to stay the course.”
Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) is the nonprofit, applied research division of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). Founded in 1934 as the Engineering Experiment Station, GTRI has grown to more than 2,800 employees supporting eight laboratories in over 20 locations around the country and performs more than $700 million of problem-solving research annually for government and industry. GTRI's renowned researchers combine science, engineering, economics, policy, and technical expertise to solve complex problems for the U.S. federal government, state, and industry. Learn more at https://www.gtri.gatech.edu/ and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Writer: Christopher Weems
Photographer: Sean McNeil