Sandia LabNews

Born into engineering

Asian American engineer sees prestigious award as "career achievement"

Ireena Erteza (5962) has engineering in her blood. She’s had a love for it as far back as she can remember.

 “My father showed me what it is to be a scholar and an engineer,” she says. “He was playful and creative. He gave me free rein to play in his workshop and to do projects alone or with him. We spent many hours working on cars, plumbing, lawn mowers, mopeds, computers, modems … everything. He made me want to explore and excel in many diverse areas.”

Ireena, an electrical engineer, has been named a 2017 Asian American Engineer of the Year (AAEOY). She will be honored in a ceremony Feb. 24 in Bellevue, Washington. She is the third woman from Sandia to receive the prestigious award since the program began in 2002.

The AAEOY awards program,  celebrated each year during National Engineers Week, is sponsored by the Chinese Institute of Engineers-USA to salute Asian American professionals in science, technology, engineering, and math who demonstrate exceptional leadership, technical achievements, and public service. Fifteen Sandia engineers have earned an AAEOY title, and other past winners include astronauts, corporate executives, and Nobel laureates. Nominees come from a range of industrial, academic, government, and scientific institutions.

 “I am very honored and humbled to receive this prestigious award as I start my 25th year at Sandia. It serves as recognition for the significance of my work — a career achievement award, in a sense,” says Ireena. “Sandia has been a wonderful place for me to work and grow, providing me with incredibly interesting problems that also have a tremendous impact to the nation.”

An all-around engineer

Ireena joined the Labs in 1993, after finishing her doctorate in electrical engineering at Stanford University. Early in her career, she worked in the areas of integrated and diffractive optics and information systems. She subsequently developed expertise in radiation effects on optical processing systems, unattended ground sensor signal processing, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) signal processing and algorithm development, and high performance computing. Her biggest impact has been to national SAR systems. 

 “Ireena is known throughout the lab and in the national SAR community for her strong technical contributions and her strong leadership. While having deep technical knowledge in her areas of expertise, Ireena also has an amazing ability to see the big picture, allowing her to guide the community forward strategically. In SAR, her work has significantly changed the way the community approaches SAR signal processing,” says her manager Larry Stotts (5962).

Her career has been marked by innovative research efforts in computation and algorithm development, initiatives to standardize radar data formats, and work to make interaction with computational power easy and accessible to users. “Her contributions have been game-changing, allowing the value and power of SAR to be applied on tactically relevant mission timelines. Her work has brought success to Sandia and its customers,” Larry adds, “and she continues to introduce fundamentally new concepts.”

Born into engineering

ASIAN AMERICAN ENGINEER OF THE YEAR recipient Ireena Erteza, left, with husband Brian Bray and daughter Iliana Bray. Brian, Ireena says, “has constantly inspired me to keep growing.” (Photo courtesy of Ireena Erteza)

In the late 1940s, Ireena’s father came to the United States to attend graduate school. He and his wife emigrated from East Pakistan — known today as Bangladesh — and eventually settled in New Mexico, where he was a key faculty member in the electrical engineering department at the University of New Mexico (UNM).

Ireena’s father never let gender affect her access to engineering; he had no doubts his daughter could become an accomplished scientist or engineer. She earned a Bachelor of Science from UNM and a Master of Science and PhD from Stanford, all in electrical engineering.

While studying at Stanford, Ireena met two role models who have mentored her long after graduation. One was her PhD adviser, professor Joseph Goodman. “He is an exemplar of a great scholar and great leader. He has always been an amazing advocate for me and for all of his students.” The other was fellow doctoral student, Brian Bray; he and Ireena have been married for 26 years. They are both distinguished members of the technical staff. The couple have one daughter, who is majoring in electrical engineering at Stanford.

“Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, has often said that the most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry,” Ireena says. “Brian has always encouraged and enabled me to pursue my dreams, and he has constantly inspired me to keep growing.”

Mentee to mentor

For the past 30 years, Ireena has worked to be a strong role model for women pursuing science and engineering careers. She also has mentored in the community for more than 25 years, including early career employees at the Labs. She is a member of Sandia’s recruiting and student intern programs. “As current professionals, we must make both work and non-work environments comfortable and welcoming,” says Ireena.

In addition to STEM-focused mentoring, she has a passion for running and, 18 years ago, started a trail running group. Every Sunday the group meets to run trails in the Sandia Mountains, the foothills, or around the city. “The mission of the group is to provide an encouraging environment for novice runners and a comfortable environment for more experienced runners to enjoy the amazing natural trails in Albuquerque.”

Ireena has participated and placed in dozens of local and national races, and she has been a nationally ranked novice racquetball player. A healthy work-life balance has contributed to her successes, and she strives to share that with those she mentors.

“Engineering is such a wonderful and fulfilling field, and I hope I can be a role model not only for young women but for all young people. It’s important for them to understand that success as an engineer doesn’t depend on gender or ethnicity,” she says.