Forging Forward: Empowering Women in Defense

March 28, 2022 | Devon Bistarkey

Scientist and national security leader, Dr. Brandi Vann shares message of persistence during Women’s History Month

From examining where the phrase “glass ceiling” came from – to sharing her career path and earning a top national security role, Dr. Brandi Vann, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear, Chemical & Biological Defense Programs, discussed her experiences breaking social barriers during a virtual Women’s History Month Observance event at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. on March 23, 2022.

For a scientist who has been blazing a trail for women in both the biological and defense communities, Vann shared a message of strength, empowerment, and persistence noting that in many ways barriers still exists for women – and more work has to be done in supporting women across the board, and in every industry.

Vann discussed her Appalachian upbringing and being inspired by her immigrant great grandmother, noting that the women around her found strength within their culture and gender, and battled the stigma and issues of inequality.

“I grew up listening to stories of women in my family overcoming great odds and obstacles to not only raise their families but to raise themselves – and raise up those around them,” Vann said. “Fighting through the toughest of times; and finding strength within to be strong, to be independent, and to fight through that adversity – but most of all, to keep going.”

Looking back on her career, she reflected on the key moments she pushed back on barriers. Realizing that the support she was being given wasn’t helping her advance, she knew she had reached a glass ceiling – in fact not a glass ceiling but a glass box. Vann used this moment to develop a mantra that has helped to guide her.

“I decided I was not going to let anyone else dictate the conditions of my success; I realized in that moment, I had to forge my own path – see my own way, and take my own risks. I was going to have to make the move, succeed or fail,” Vann said.

In forging her own path, Vann shared her experience being the only women working in a plant; and as the only woman there – this required allocating her own bathroom. While a small, almost humorous anecdote, her message was clear, “in order to break a glass ceiling, we must first have the place and the possibility to access that opportunity.”

So, while it’s important to showcase one’s skills, she emphasized how important it is for women to take up space, challenge themselves and others. She outlined a few ways women can support each other:

  • Find a mentor, and be a mentor, in fact find many! Learn from everyone you meet. Continue to learn and grow. Keep asking questions and listening for feedback – don’t be scared to find a sponsor and be a sponsor yourself.
  • Hold each other up and look forward to one another’s rise; we all rise, when we each rise.
  • Find strength in your voice – and give voice to others through honesty, coaching, and mentorship. Empower others and share your stories – share you vision, your experience, your history, and your expertise, and be mindful to do the same for others.
  • Take risk and stretch yourself – push your boundaries and get out of your comfort zone. This will forever shape you for the better. Trust your gut.

Vann ended her remarks acknowledging that the toughest challenges of her career were the most empowering and invited everyone to be the change they wished to see in the world.

“One day I hope we can stand together with the glass ceiling shattered to dust at our feet.”


The APG Women’s History Month Celebration; Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope was sponsored by the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense, Federal Women’s Program, and APG Garrison. During the event, Vann received the crystal eagle award in recognition of her accomplishments.