Master scholars

By Valerie Smith

Photography By Randy Montoya

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Graduate students bringing critical skills to Sandia

Summertime at Sandia is intern season, with hundreds of students converging on its campuses in hopes of getting great experience and perhaps even a shot at a job when they graduate.

But not all students at Sandia this summer have to worry about that elusive job. About 80 graduate students already are employees of Sandia through its prestigious Master’s Fellowship Program (MFP) or the Critical Skills Master’s Program (CSMP). Through these unique special degree programs, participants work full-time at Sandia each summer, and also are full-time regular employees in the spring and fall when they go back to their school campuses to complete their master’s degrees. Sandia pays full graduate school tuition and a stipend through the program while at school.

Both programs target degrees in highly sought fields, such as computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, materials science, and math. The primary difference is that the MFP also is a diversity recruiting program that helps Sandia meet its Affirmative Action goals by encouraging candidates in underrepresented populations to come to work at Sandia.

Once their degree is secured, a career awaits back at Sandia, and they’re able to start full-time work with the benefit of having experienced the job for two summers, as well as having customized their coursework in some cases to directly apply to their Sandia jobs. 

A perfect next step

For Deepu Jose (rhymes with rose), the MFP was the perfect next step on his career path. He had just received an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Dallas and was considering a second internship at Raytheon followed by graduate school when his dad came across the MFP program on Sandia’s website. Deepu applied and was accepted.

His next step was to find a graduate program. Deepu (6620) applied to seven top-tier universities for his graduate studies and to his surprise was accepted to all seven. The one that stood out for him happened to be a Sandia Academic Alliance institution — Georgia Tech, where he’ll graduate this December. Launched in 2015, Sandia’s Academic Alliance is a partnership with five universities that share an interest in advancing the future of engineering and science.

A Santa Fe native, Deepu was familiar with Sandia, but perhaps influenced by the proximity of Los Alamos National Laboratory being situated on “the hill,” he always assumed Sandia was located atop the mountains for which it was named.

The fact that it’s not has been the least of his discoveries as he’s learned about the real Sandia. His biggest surprise? “The vast range of work done here,” he says. “It’s a pretty remarkable place to work.”

Deepu’s boss, Senior Manager Bob Mata (6620), can easily relate to the feeling of discovery for a newcomer to Sandia. He came to Sandia himself through the predecessor program to the MFP and CSMP called One Year on Campus, earning his master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University in 1983. His recruiter, Dan Arvisu, was also an alumni of the program. Since becoming a manager about 15 years ago, Bob has carried the tradition forward, hiring numerous Sandians through the program.

The breadth of work at Sandia is just one of the selling points Bob uses to attract top students to work on his team. He views the importance of the work in ensuring the nation’s security as one of the top reasons to work at Sandia, and it’s why he’s grateful to have the MFP and CSMP to give Sandia an extra advantage.

“I’m closer to the end of my career than the beginning, and I want to make sure we have the team in place to continue the important work we perform in the future,” Bob says. “It’s a great selling point for me to be able to offer this benefit. There absolutely is a lot of competition for these students.”

'Always a pipeline'

Tally Lobato (3550), CSMP-MFP program lead in Sandia’s Talent Acquisition organization, agrees that the programs give Sandia the ability to attract students in a highly competitive market. The number of openings in the CSMP varies each year depending on division needs for certain critical technical skills. Typically, about 10 to 15 slots are budgeted for MFP participants. This year, about 40 students joined Sandia through the programs, about 50 are entering their final year of graduate school, and 10 started full-time work at Sandia after graduation during the spring and summer terms.

“There’s always a pipeline of participants coming into Sandia as they get their degrees,” says Margaret Quinn, manager of Sandia’s Recruiting and Student Programs department. “We leverage these programs in a very strategic way by looking forward to the future skill sets that will be needed and by marketing — the MFP in particular — to campus diversity organizations and career services offices.”

Too good to pass up

Many, like Kelsie Larson (5960), learned about the program after serving an internship at Sandia while working on their bachelor’s degrees. Kelsie earned a degree in electrical engineering and physics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in three and half years and was looking ahead to graduate school when she learned about a CSMP opening at Sandia. The appeal of getting to directly apply what she was learning to Sandia’s work while earning a master’s degree was too good to pass up.

She’s attending Purdue University, another Academic Alliance institution, and has been able to customize her class schedules to incorporate areas that have specific relevance to her work at Sandia. She gets guidance on what to take from co-workers each summer when she’s back at Sandia.

“I’ve been able to directly apply what I’m learning to the work I’m doing here,” she says.

Another advantage of attending Purdue is that Sandia’s on-site manager, Bill Hart (1910), has helped connect the different Sandia-bound students through periodic events to create a sense of community during the academic year.

Almost missed the signals

While Kelsie followed a more typical path to learn about the CSMP while working as an intern, Sam Carey (2660), a CSMP participant in his final year at Georgia Tech, almost missed the signals the universe was sending him. As an electrical engineering student at Texas A&M, a professor early in his undergraduate studies mentioned the program and advised Sam to look into it. Sam stored the information away but didn’t do anything with it. A few months later, he was at a salsa dance club in College Station when he met a participant in the program who heard what Sam was studying and urged him to apply. It wasn’t until Sam attended a job fair at A&M and stopped by a Sandia booth where recruiters told him about the program that he finally got the message: this was something he needed to pursue.

Like Deepu, he chose Georgia Tech for his graduate studies, in part because he could focus on radio frequencies in his curriculum, although he says courses with an “amazing professor” have opened up other new areas of concentration. Like Kelsie, he has been able to customize coursework to tie directly back to his work at Sandia.

“When participants in the MFP and CSMP graduate, they’re able to start contributing value to Sandia immediately,” Bob Mata says. “It’s a strategic investment in capabilities.”

Bob doesn’t leave the students’ success to chance. While they’re attending college, they report directly to him, and he may even suggest course work. When they come to Sandia after graduation, he partners the participant with a mentor. In some cases, it’s an alumni from the program. Currently Blake Reece (6620), who joined Sandia in 2012 through the program, mentors Cody Kirk (6620), who joined Sandia this summer through the program.

Bob thinks the program is vital for Sandia’s future success.

“I’m so thankful for this program,” he says.

Tally says she hears that feedback from managers throughout the Labs.

“They feel the program is very beneficial in bringing top students to Sandia,” she says. “These students are our rock stars.”