DAPHNE, Alabama — “You do the thing where you want to be a firefighter, or a ballerina, or an astronaut and I got stuck on wanting to be an astronaut at 11,” Daphne-native Elizabeth Hayes said in an interview with AL.com.
The 34-year-old from the Volovecky family quickly climbed the corporate ladder as a government contractor, and through it all she’s held tight to her roots and continues to make big contributions to her hometown.
An Auburn University graduate, Hayes received her bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in 2002 and her master’s degree in aerospace with a concentration in astrodynamics in 2007.
“When you get to picking majors, it’s not like you can major in being an astronaut. I’ve always loved math and science so I went into aerospace,” Hayes said.
In 2004 she began her career at the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) in Huntsville. In a group of about 150 people she did Department of Defense work, supporting the Washington, D.C. missile defense agency. Hayes worked with army customers and navy customers out of Virginia as well.
Hayes worked on developing the software for a program called Umpire, which would allow a user to input certain missile attack scenarios and see the outcome. She also did research with sensors, and interceptors with the navy.
“We were the first to incorporate their interceptor model into a computer-based program where you could play around with it and see what it could do, and it was legitimate DoD data,” Hayes said.
The Umpire program was free to government employees, and is still used today.
Hayes worked with SAIC in Huntsville until 2006, when she moved back to Daphne and telecommuted. She was still required to travel frequently, though.
In 2012 the company saw budget cuts, and Hayes, who was managing the Umpire program, went to part-time so her team could have more hours. During this time, SAIC was also in the middle of splitting into two separate companies.
Also in 2012, Hayes said her father’s business, Belforest Small Engine and Marine Repair, burned to the ground.
“About three weeks after the fire I had this epiphany and I said I’m going to build something that we can rent out, and a week later I got the idea of opening up a business that basically promoted local artists and crafters,” Hayes said.
While creating the business, Hayes was unsure of where SAIC was headed. “I was a lifer. I was expecting to be with SAIC for the rest of my life because I loved my team, I loved what I was doing and I loved my customers,” Hayes said.
In October of 2013 at a Lake Forest Garden Club meeting, which Hayes attends with her grandmother, the work Algae Systems was doing was brought up. Hayes looked it up, was interested in the project, and emailed Algae Systems for more information.
“I wasn’t looking for a job at all. I was like a nosey Daphne native, but my scientific mind was like I’m really curios…” Hayes said.
In November of 2013 Algae Systems made an offer, and Hayes took it.
“You go from a large corporation with very set procedures, to a new company with less than 25 people doing something that’s never been done before,” Hayes said. She also continued to work on her business, Seasons consignment crafts and gifts, which opens this month.
“I’ve had so many people say, ‘You’re a great engineer, you’re just going to hang up engineering and go make crafts?'” But Hayes said she’s always enjoyed making crafts.
“I like making things, I like creating things. There’s something to be said about starting with nothing and having something,” Hayes said.
“It can be something small, like a nap mat for my son to go to preschool and no one else has it. Or it could be something that helps the missile defense industry plan out possible scenarios that may happen to us,” Hayes said.
She is now an operations manager and research engineer at Algae Systems.
Rob McElroy, Algae Systems vice president of operation and market development, said the company is happy to have her.
“She’s an amazing engineer and the thing that I’ve always appreciated is I fully understand this is a male dominated industry, it’s just a fact,” McElroy said.
“It’s a field that is heavily focused around men and I have always greatly admired women who come into this field and not only survive but just dominate it,” he added.
“That’s one thing Elizabeth does, she’s not a great female engineer she’s a great engineer. There’s just no limit to what she can accomplish,” McElroy said.
Photo caption: Hayes at Algae Systems. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Hayes)