Sandia LabNews

Best Man: BEYA award winner listened to his parents and excelled in materials science

Innovation is all about the network needed to bring an idea to reality, said Andrew Hargadon, director of the Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and a UC Davis professor of technology management, at the Livermore Valley Lab-Corpskick-off.	(Photo by Julie Russell, LLNL)

Jon Madison (1814) says a key to his academic and professional success was listening to the adults in his life. “I don’t pretend to know everything,” he says. “I listened to the people who had my best interests at heart: my parents, my teachers, my mentors. I might not have understood or agreed with them, but just hearing what they were telling me provided opportunities later in life.” (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Growing up in Kansas, Jon Madison had a strong sense of who he was and where he was going. “I wasn’t an average kid,” he says. “Whatever my peers were doing, chances are I wasn’t doing it. After school and weekends I helped with my family’s business. When it came to performing academically and taking an intellectual route, I always went my own way.”

Jon (1814) followed a path to advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and materials science and a career at Sandia. He mentors interns at the Labs and young people in the community.

He recently was named winner of a Black Engineer of the Year Award (BEYA) for Most Promising Scientist. “This is a high point in my career,” Jon says. “I was excited to win and to represent Sandia in this way.”

BEYA is a program of the national Career Communications Group, an advocate for corporate diversity, and is part of its STEM achievement program. The awards annually recognize the nation’s best and brightest engineers, scientists, and technology experts. Jon will receive his award at the 29th BEYA conference Feb. 5-7 in Washington, D.C. The event precedes National Engineers Week.

Aimed for a career in science

Jon’s parents were painting contractors who encouraged him to excel. “They didn’t push me into any one field or direction,” he says. “They said whatever you do, do your best, and that stuck with me.”

He worked in the family business and decided it wasn’t for him. He wanted a career in science. But math didn’t come easy, so his sister tutored him every day throughout his first few years of high school. “She got me on the path to learning and understanding math,” he says.

Jon went to Clark Atlanta University, a historically black university, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering science. He then headed to the University of Michigan to complete his master’s and PhD in materials science and engineering.

Jon was in the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (AMP) initiative, a STEM scholarship program of the National Science Foundation. “They said from day one that I would go to grad school,” he says. “The expectations were high.”

He did summer internships at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., Washington State University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I was looking for mechanical engineering internships but ended up in materials research programs,” he says. “I got a lot of exposure and opportunity to see materials science in different ways. That’s when it clicked for me I would like to pursue materials science as a career.”

Jon began looking at the job market as he finished his dissertation, focusing on industry rather than academia. A conversation with his mentor, George Spanos, technical director of the Minerals, Metals & Materials Society (TMS), changed all that. Jon recalls Spanos asking him what was most important to him. What were the things he really, really wanted to do in his career? “I boiled it down to three things. I wanted to mentor students, do fundamental research, and be involved in professional societies,” Jon says. “George responded by saying it sounded like I was looking for a national lab. That had never even entered my mind.”

That was the summer of 2009, and in 2010 Jon joined Sandia. “I talked to many of the labs, but Sandia was always the frontrunner,” he says.

An advocate for diversity

Jon’s work centers on destructive and non-destructive techniques to understand microstructure in three dimensions, and using that information in experiments and simulations. He’s also helping to develop a materials database that can be used across the Labs. “I get a tremendous sense of satisfaction from accomplishing things,” he says. “I like to see something come together in a complete way.”

Duane Dimos, director of Pulsed Power Sciences Center 1600, nominated Jon for the BEYA award, saying his research skills “are differentiated from many peers by a mastery of both experimental and modeling expertise with a focus on quantification of defects in materials microstructures.”

“Jon is a tireless advocate for ensuring diversity within his professional field and at work,” Duane says. “He serves as a role model for aspiring young African American students.”

Jon is an Executive Fellowship mentor and works with interns from around the country. “I take mentoring really seriously,” he says. “It is our responsibility as scientists to mentor the next generation. It’s close to my heart because I was groomed by mentors.”

He and his wife volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central New Mexico. And Jon is a life member of the National Society of Black Engineers and the NAACP. He is also area director of the service fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, which had Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a member.

In his spare time, Jon plays video games, reads, and watches movies. He also takes on the occasional painting job around the house, a nod to the family business. “It tends to be on my to-do list,” he smiles.

Jon’s message to young people is the same one he received as a kid from his parents. “It doesn’t matter what you choose to do, just strive to do your best,” he says. “The better you perform now, the more doors will open for you later. You don’t want to close those doors before you have a chance to look through them. You never know what opportunities are around the corner.”