January 3, 2024
When he started at LLNL, plasma physicist Ronnie Shepherd planned to work at the Lab for five years before moving on. That was 36 years ago.
“I had two teaching offers and I told the location where I was planning to go that I was going to come here for five years, leave the Lab, and then go there and teach,” he said. “And the chairman of that department said, ‘If you ever go to Livermore, you’ll never return. You’ll never leave.’ ”
Shepherd, director of outreach at the High Energy Density Science (HED) Center, was among several LLNL employees who described their Lab career paths to students and interns attending the LLNL HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) Week, a virtual four-day event held from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3.
Now in its fourth year, LLNL HBCU Week’s goal is to increase the number of underrepresented groups in STEM fields. Lab staff, including HBCU alumni, presented an overview of LLNL research, Lab culture, and internship, fellowship, and career opportunities.
The attendees were treated to speakers like Shepherd, a University of Michigan alum whose award-winning and distinguished career has included a focus on experimental studies of atomic processes in high-density plasmas.
He and physicist Annie Kritcher were selected as 2022 Fellows of the American Physical Society (APS). Shepherd was honored for his contributions to understanding HED plasmas through experiments at short-pulse lasers, for the development of time-resolved diagnostics, and for his time and commitment to mentoring many early-career scientists.
A total of 160 students and faculty registered and more than 50 people attended the live sessions or viewed the job and internship booths, according to Laser Materials Interaction Group staff scientist Vanessa Peters, who volunteered to organize the event with Candace Harris and NIF&PS Workforce Manager Zhi Liao.
The event consisted of:
In the career workshop, panelists cited a range of reasons why they enjoyed working at LLNL, including work-life balance, job flexibility and scheduling, the congenial Lab culture, working with world-class caliber colleagues, the opportunity to do one-of-a-kind projects and experiments, and the overall mission—national security.
“What I enjoy most about working here is being able to work on a variety of different projects,” said Shauna Castor, a Howard University alumna and nonproliferation analyst with the Global Security Directorate. “I never get bored. Right now, I am working on about three to four projects, so each day consists of me not working on the same thing over and over again, but being able to switch things up.”
Castor, who joined the Lab three years ago, said the work-life balance allows her to work remotely from home each week as the mother of two children.
Darryl Gorman, assurance manager for the NIF&PS Directorate, cited the importance of work-life balance during in his 13-year career at LLNL and, before that, his 14-year career at semiconductor industry giant Intel Corp.
“What I realized is that ‘quality of life’ is more important to me than anything else,” Gorman said. “I have three daughters and a son. My kids are very active and heavily involved in sports and other extracurricular activities. The Lab offers me the flexibility to balance and coordinate my work so that I am able to support and attend all of my kids’ events. I have rarely missed an event as this is very important to me.
“I work with the best, brightest, and very disciplined individuals,” he continued. “The ability to closely interact with colleagues and learn something new on a day-to-day basis has helped solidify my overall career here at LLNL. When I think of work, and work-life balance, I get it all, and I guess that contributes to why I’ve remained here for the past 13 years.”
Like Shepherd, Donn McMahon, principal deputy associate director for the Engineering Directorate, initially intended to stay at the Lab for a brief period—three years in his case. He’s been at LLNL for 29 years.
“Again, that speaks to everything that folks said about finding something that interests you,” McMahon said. “A little kid from New York City can eventually make his way pretty high up in the organization.”
Castor said the Lab helped relocate her family from the Midwest to the Livermore area in December 2020—the height of the pandemic, when most things were in shutdown mode. She received both signing and moving bonuses, and moved with her husband and two children.
“It was a bit overwhelming trying to get the lay of the land, especially during COVID with a lot of things still shut down,” she said. “But the Lab really did help me every step of the way. Also, the onboarding process was very smooth. I was able to meet people in different areas of the Lab and make those connections.”
Several panelists told the students that having good mentors was vital to their success.
“One of the most important things is having a really good mentor,” Castor said. Her best friend’s aunt was a nuclear engineer and helped Castor with her thesis at graduate school at Bowling Green University—and continues to advise her to this day.
“She helped me understand the technical aspects of my thesis,” Castor said. “My parents did not go to college. They really couldn’t tell me. It was kind of like, ‘Be the best you can be.’ That’s great, but what’s the roadmap? What does that look like?
“Having a really great, strong mentor really helped me,” she said, “because she understood where I was trying to go and what I needed to do, helping me understand what internships to take and what not to take, how to advocate for myself for fair and equal pay—all those different things that we don’t necessarily understand or learn in the classroom.”
McMahon advised people to look for jobs at the Lab that stimulate them and keep them interested.
“If you’re not enjoying at least 50 percent of what you’re doing, you need to change something,” McMahon said. “There are so many things to do around the Laboratory, even if you’re within an organization like NIF. There are so many things to do within NIF. I encourage people to look for things that are going to keep them interested to come back to work, so that the majority of time, you are doing something interesting for you, to you.”
Castor had high praise for the Lab’s inclusive culture.
“I felt as though some of the ideas and who I am have been embraced and accepted and also encouraged,” she said. “And that’s a great space to be in.”
McMahon echoed the compliments about the Lab’s culture.
“I was amazed that the Lab let me do some stuff when I first came here,” he said. “My degree was in mechanical engineering and I started working at the National Ignition Facility. I did a lot of software modeling and simulation. When I got to NIF, they wanted me to help build the electrical side of the automation systems. I know how to program all these things, but you’re going to let me pick electrical stuff?
“So, I’m learning on the job, developing, assembling, picking components, developing wire diagrams and all this stuff—and then they’re paying me full time to learn this stuff? I was just amazed.
“The Lab has allowed me to build and grow in different directions—at no cost to me, on their dime,” he said. “I’m grateful for that. That’s why I like to extend those blessings I’ve received and make sure that everybody is aware of it.”
Peters praised the many Lab staffers who participated in making LLNL HBCU Week a success.
“We are very grateful for the Lab staff that provided their time to speak with students about their time and experiences at LLNL,” Peters said. “We could not continue this effort without the help of volunteers. Students attend the event to find out about the Lab and why they should consider it for internships and/or careers. Having a diverse group of volunteers from across the different directorates at the Lab allows students to learn about the broad spectrum of research we have here.
“This recruiting effort is now considered an institutional event and we are grateful for the continued support from the IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability) office.”
Peters said the most attended live session was the resume workshop and several students have reached out about internships and jobs directly because of HBCU Week.
Lab volunteers also included: Nikki Finnestead, Keturah Palma, Paige Thompson, Andrekka Lanier, Mavrik Zavarin, Mark Mitchell, Jeremy Feaster, Sylwia Hamilton, Kristi Belcher, Makena Haroldson Briceno, Paige Jones, Mark Miller, Don Frederick, Theodore Ude, Roger Qiu, Jackie Gonzalez, Abiel Tesfandrias, Raluca Negres, Isaac Bass, Nathan Ray, Nitish Govindarajan, Aiden Martin, Thej Tumkur, Tony Baylis, Eric Schwegler, Denis Richard, Jerry Clark, Amy Weldon, Nick Thomas, Lily Forest, Jarrod Farmer, Shalini Mabery, Chad Giacomozzi, Brian Gunn, Amy Waters, Nelida Ayacaxli, Christopher Rager, Kumar Raman, Paul Miller, Evan Gonzalez, Lauren Abrahams, Paul Tsuji, John Calhoun, Julia Leary, Joshua Jones, Kevin Gallagher, Jamie Lewis, and Connie Aniceto.
More Information:“LLNL Hosts HBCU Students, Faculty to Build New Pipeline of Talent,” NIF & Photon Science News, October 12, 2023
NIF&PS Summer Scholar Program Celebrates a Record Year,” NIF & Photon Science News, August 23, 2023
“Intern Follows His Lifelong Passion for Science to LLNL,” NIF & Photon Science News, August 23, 2023
“NIF&PS Summer Scholar Wants to Be an Inspiration to Other Students,” NIF & Photon Science News, August 23, 2023
“LLNL Expands Outreach to HBCUs in Weeklong Event,”NIF & Photon Science News, December 13, 2021
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