Navy officer deepens her engineering and leadership skills at MIT

Trained to be a leader even as a child, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Asia Allison is acquiring a new level of expertise as a graduate student at MIT — and a new approach to technical leadership in the Daniel J. Riccio Graduate Engineering Leadership (GradEL) program.

“The Navy has a need for engineering leaders,” Allison says. “The critical-thinking skills that I am developing in GradEL will be very helpful in the workforce as we tackle a myriad of challenges and bring new ideas to the Navy.”

Allison was born in Norfolk, Virginia. Her father is also in the Navy, and the family moved every few years. Already at age 4, she was given her “first opportunity to lead,” she says, when her first sibling was born, and her mother made it clear that Allison, as the oldest child, would “set the standard.”

U.S. Navy lieutenant Asia Allison is earning a naval engineer degree and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at MIT.

“My mom was laying down the foundation for me, showing me what it truly meant to lead by example,” she says.

While studying mathematics at Spelman College, which Allison paid for by joining the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC), she became a battalion operations officer, responsible for giving direction to about 20 other NROTC students. And in her first tour of duty right out of college, Allison led a division of sailors — while she was learning what their duties entailed.

“I began by shadowing my sailors so that I could learn their skillset and be able to advocate for them as their leader,” she says.

In 2020, Allison had an experience that shook the foundations of her career and perhaps allowed her to build something stronger and more balanced.

“Failing my Prospective Nuclear Engineering Officer course was a pivotal moment in my life,” Allison says. “It meant I would have to reevaluate my career. It was also the first time I really failed at something.”

The experience was crushing to her at first, but in time, it would bring Allison to a world-renowned engineering program and a process of self-discovery at MIT.

Allison realized that she had grown passionate about engineering during the time she had spent in the Navy’s nuclear program. She switched “communities” to engineering duty officer in July 2020 and applied to the graduate program in naval construction and engineering at MIT in September of that year. In summer 2021, she began a three-year program to earn a naval engineer degree and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering.

In spring 2023, Allison was selected to participate in GradEL, a program that aims to cultivate leaders of exceptional skill and character who can inspire teams and drive technical efforts that change the world for the better. A main aspect of the program puts participants through an extensive process of self-reflection, with the underlying idea that good leaders need to know themselves first — in effect, they must learn how to manage themselves before attempting to manage others.

It was in GradEL that Allison developed a deeper understanding of her own background and profile as a leader. She identified strengths that dated back to her early childhood and areas where she would benefit by changing her perspective.

Reflecting on failure, she says that since having taken a GradEL class that focuses heavily on self-discovery, she knows she was previously “in more of a fixed mindset. I was choosing to look at my mistake as an absolute rather than as an opportunity to improve.”

Allison says the self-reflection aspect of the GradEL program has provided her with clarity. “It helps to know where you want to go based on where you have been.”

Industry leaders who spoke to the GradEL students about the challenges faced in their careers were also very helpful to Allison. “Hearing how the guest speakers overcame those challenges is something that I plan to apply in my career,” she says.

Her graduate studies in engineering are culminating in a master’s thesis project involving the design of a refueling infrastructure for an offshore nuclear electricity-generation platform.

“I really liked the concept with my prior nuclear engineering experience, as well as having taken a sustainability course here at MIT. I found the idea of investing in an alternate source of electricity generation to be worth exploring,” she says.

Bolstered with advanced engineering and leadership training, Allison still leans on the early lessons provided by her mother.

“I hold dearly to the lessons she taught me,” Allison says, “and continue to push myself with her as my motivation and my ‘North Star.’”