Sandia LabNews

Rodeo queen and chemical engineer

Caption SANDIA TECHNICAL INTERN Cami Belcher (1853) and an Exceptional Rodeo cowboy share a moment at the New Mexico State Fair Sept. 15, 2015. Cami loves the Exceptional Rodeo — a mini rodeo for children with special needs.	(Photo courtesy of Cami Belcher)

Sandia technical intern Cami Belcher and an Exceptional Rodeo cowboy share a moment at the New Mexico State Fair Sept. 15, 2015. Cami loves the Exceptional Rodeo — a mini rodeo for children with special needs. (Photo courtesy of Cami Belcher)

Cami Belcher, a graduate student intern, has looked up to the New Mexico State Fair Queen ever since she was little.

“That girl with her hat and crown, riding around the arena; that’s what I always wanted to be,” says Cami.

This September, Cami became that girl. She was crowned in front of more than 6,000 people in a sold-out Tingley Coliseum. Cami was astonished by the overwhelming feeling of support and approval as she walked through the cheering crowds on coronation night.

James McElhanon, manager of Organic Materials Science Dept. 1853, says, “Cami has been great addition to our department as both an undergraduate, and now, graduate student intern. Cami has demonstrated a keen interest in organic materials synthesis, characterization, and development of new materials. We couldn’t be more proud of Cami’s accomplishments both at Sandia and as New Mexico State Fair Queen.”

As a chemical engineering master’s student at the University of New Mexico and as a technical intern at Sandia, Cami doesn’t exactly fit the traditional rodeo queen mold. Her advice for the next generation of little girls looking up to her as the 2016 New Mexico State Fair Queen is to stay true to who they are.


Cami fell in love with chemistry during her first, required, college chemistry course, and her professional goal now is to become a chemical engineer. In her work in the Organic Materials Science department, Cami is creating and characterizing better capacitor materials. One of her previous projects involved working on capacitors for hybrid cars. These capacitors store the energy lost when braking a hybrid car, and then discharge the energy to accelerate the car again. However, current capacitors can only do this so many times before they’re toast. The team Cami is a part of makes polymer films to go into renewable energy programs and other capacitor programs at Sandia. 

It is almost a truism that you need patience in lab. Things frequently don’t go right, or maybe you get results that are completely unexpected. You need patience to take a step back and re-evaluate the situation. Cami has lots of patience, an ability she honed while riding.

“You’re riding this 1,200-pound animal that you have no control over, you just think you have control, and you just hope that they concur with what you want to do that day,” Cami says with a chuckle.

Riding is also Cami’s stress reliever, for when things don’t go smoothly in the lab, “I can be on a horse and nothing else in the world matters at that moment. There’s just this connection, this bond, between the horse and rider that you don’t understand unless you ride.”

‘Strategic balancing act’

But competing in rodeos takes a lot of time, and the commitments that follow winning the title of rodeo queen take even more. In the off-season Cami has been spending about half of her weekends going to rodeos or attending rodeo queen appearances. Next summer she’ll be even busier, attending a rodeo or country fair practically every weekend.

“It’s a very strategic balancing act,” Cami says.

She squeezes in studying chemical engineering while her best friend, also a rodeo queen, is driving them to the next rodeo, a loaded horse trailer hitched to the truck, chemical engineering textbooks strewn over the dash.

“It’s a crazy-busy life right now,” says Cami, “but I enjoy everything I do.”

Giving back

The rules for the New Mexico State Fair Queen Contest describe the queen as an ambassador of the New Mexico State Fair with responsibilities to attend certain designated public appearances and exhibit exceptional sportsmanship throughout the year. 

Cami sees her reign as a way for her to give back to her community, especially by sharing the Western lifestyle with children. Cami loves events such as visits to the University of New Mexico Hospital and participating in riding clinics for children.

One of her favorite events is the Exceptional Rodeo, where children with special needs get to take part in a mini-rodeo. They get to ride a real horse, learn to rope a hay steer, and even run barrels on a stick horse.

These activities introduce the children to the fundamentals of what rodeo is, says Cami, adding, “It’s a blast!”

A family affair

Attending rodeos and fairs was a regular family activity when Cami was growing up. Also, Cami’s two older brothers roped and rode broncos in 4-H rodeos since before she was born, winning numerous belt buckles and multiple titles each.

One of Cami’s older brothers, Curtis Belcher, and her sister-in-law, Lori Belcher, also work at Sandia, making both rodeos and working at the Labs truly a family affair.

Cami was the 2015 Bernalillo County Queen, and the first attendant at last year’s New Mexico State Fair Queen contest. She has also won several local barrel races.