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Myklyn Grace Balmut from Manteca High School receives her award for outstanding achievement in science.  (Photo by Dino Vournas)
Myklyn Grace Balmut from Manteca High School receives her award for outstanding achievement in science. (Photo by Dino Vournas)

Over the past two decades, the Sandia Women’s Connection (SWC) has recognized 400 young women for academic excellence through its annual Math & Science Awards. In May, the event was held for the first time at Sandia in the Combustion Research Computation and Visualization (CRCV) building, part of the site’s new General Access Area (GAA).

Each year, teachers from 10 high schools in Livermore, Dublin, Pleasanton, Tracy, and Manteca nominate two students, one for outstanding achievement in math and one for outstanding achievement in science.

The award is given to young women in their junior year of high school so they can include it on their college and scholarship applications.

“Even though women have made big strides, particularly in the biological sciences, when we look at chemical and mechanical engineering, mathematics, physics, and computer science, there is a big gap in the number of women in these fields versus men, particularly in high-level positions,” says Cathy Branda (8623), the event’s chair. “These awards are one way we are trying to address that gap.”

‘A tremendous number of doors open’

The event honors the young women for their academic achievements, but it’s also about introducing them to successful women scientists and the many career paths available in math and science. “We hope you recognize that when you excel in math and science, a tremendous number of doors open for you,” said Cathy in presenting the awards

Before the awards presentation, the awardees met their Sandia hosts, women with careers in math and science. Donna Djordjevich (8116) explained her Ground Truth program, an interactive gaming platform used to simulate critical homeland security activities. Victoria VanderNoot (8125) shared her work on the RapTOR (Rapid Threat Organism Recognition) Grand Challenge, a project to develop a tool for rapid characterization of biological organisms.

The awardees also learned about internship opportunities at Sandia.

“While this event has always been about fostering mentoring relationships between career scientists and students, in recent years it has become a pipeline for interns,” says Cathy. “Over the past few years, we’ve had several awardees return as summer interns. It would be wonderful to see some of these talented young women return to Sandia as staff members when they have completed their education.”

The speakers were Tammy Kolda (8966) and Rene Bierbaum (8245), who shared their personal stories. Both women said they had accomplished far more than they ever expected to, and that they were driven by passion for math and science.

‘Something switched on’ in college

Tammy discovered her love of math in college and ultimately graduated first in her class.

“In college, something switched on, and I started studying more and getting straight A’s. Although I’d gotten a lot of A’s before, I never got them all in the same semester,” she said in her remarks. “I’d always liked math, but had no idea what you could do with it. Suddenly I realized I was taking lots of math classes so, almost by default, math became my major.” She described her research as analogous to suggesting “friends” on Facebook. “We are looking at the structure of networks, the underlying process that drives them — can I describe them in an equation? Can I describe your social life in an equation? If that sounds hard, it is,” she said. “I can’t look in the back of the book for an answer, but that’s a good thing. It’s fun to figure out the answer on your own.”

Rene characterized her career path as a series of “microforks” in the road. “These little microforks didn’t seem significant at the time, but when I look back I see how important they were in my life,” she said. Rene said she was interested in engineering before she even knew what it was. At Halloween, when other kids were thinking about their costumes, she collected and analyzed data on the number of trick-or-treaters that came to her house, their candy choices, and anything else she could record numerically.

She described going through a series of majors in college — chemical engineering, computer science, math, and philosophy — before settling on electrical engineering. “It was really a magical moment when I found my passion,” Rene said. An important microfork, maybe even a millifork, occurred after she was promoted to manager. “After six years, I decided to leave management and return to my data,” said Rene. “This was a hard decision, but it paid off for me in terms of personal happiness. I think it’s really important to listen to those messages about what you love.”

Award came as a surprise

The awardees and their families enjoyed meeting the scientists and learning about their careers.

“I really liked seeing all the displays and learning about so many different fields,” says Nicole England, the math awardee from Manteca’s Sierra High School. Angela Evans, the math winner from Livermore High School, described the program as wonderful, especially the speakers.

“I wish I could have gone to something like this before I went to college,” says her father, Louis.

The winner of the math award from Pleasanton’s Amador Valley High School might be familiar to people at Sandia — Madeline Quinn, daughter of Margaret Quinn (8522). The award came as a surprise to Margaret; she first learned her daughter had won when she was reviewing the spreadsheet of winners at work.

“Maddie was honored to receive this award, and really enjoyed the event. It was a great chance for the girls to get an ‘inside look’ at some of the work done at a national laboratory and meet some very impressive role models,” says Margaret. “Both Mike [Maddie’s father] and I are really proud of her accomplishments. At this point, she talks about wanting to pursue her interests in math and science when she goes to college — and we enthusiastically support her!”