Sandia LabNews

Inspiring future nuclear engineers

Sandians share their paths to the Labs, technical expertise with Gallup students

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PRINTING HER FUTURE — Alanna Belone works on a 3D printer as part of the STEM pathways program, a collaboration between R4 Creating, Sandia and the Gallup McKinley County Schools.

Danielle Redhouse had an abandoned shopping cart and lots of time.

Danielle’s parents sent her to spend summer vacation with her grandparents in Tohatchi, a community on the Navajo Reservation about 150 miles northwest of their Albuquerque home.   

“There’s not a lot to do,” Danielle reminisced, “and that resulted in a lot of tinkering.”

She remade the grocery aisle vehicle as a tool of recreation, turning it into a kind of sled.

“It’s kind of a small engineering project,” she said. “So, with engineering projects later in life, it’s kind of like, ‘I’ve done this before.’”

Danielle shared this story, and her overall journey to becoming a nuclear engineer, with students from Gallup and Miyamura High Schools as part of a career speaker series arranged by Sandia’s Community Involvement and American Indian Outreach Committee.

Despite needing to meet virtually during the pandemic, Danielle successfully connected with the Gallup students who live just 30 miles from her grandparents in Tohatchi. Their interaction stretched two and a half hours as students asked one question after another.

“Because the meeting was running way beyond the one hour that we planned because of all the students’ questions, I finally had to end it for poor Danielle,” said Eric Schieldrop, the Gallup students’ science and engineering teacher. “The students were so into it.”

Eric credited interactions with Sandians for helping keep his students engaged through the pandemic. He said that seeing fellow New Mexicans working for a national laboratory in research, engineering, cybersecurity and more made careers that might have seemed distant feel more attainable. 

“Just before the pandemic hit, we brought students to Sandia,” he said, describing a STEM Day at the Lab event that brought his students to the Albuquerque campus in early March of 2020. “They got to meet the whole range of people, and that hooked them in a way that drove them through this whole year. A lot of the textbooks can feel like a different universe. To go to Sandia and see that, ‘people where I’m from are here,’ I think that was the key. When we went to visit, [our students] saw a diverse population and people who grew up around here.”

Danielle appreciated the Gallup students’ candid questions and the opportunity to encourage them through her experience.

“One student asked me, basically, ‘what if you don’t do that well in school,’” she said. “The [students] that resonated with me were basically those that felt like they couldn’t do it, because I felt that a lot. I failed chemistry for the first time in college because I didn’t understand how college worked. The point is just to keep trying.”

This STEM pathway program introduced students to new technical challenges. Graduating seniors built their own 3D printers as part of a capstone project offered in partnership with R4 Creating, a nonprofit organization that provides robotics and STEM opportunities for kids.

These students also participated in a summer program for six weeks after graduation. Growth Sector, a nonprofit that connects underserved students to high wage jobs, and Navajo Technical University taught a pre-calculus class. Sandia, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories facilitated career exploration projects. The program culminated in a seven-day cybersecurity incident simulation called Tracer FIRE. Typically offered by Sandia cybersecurity staff to college students and professionals, the Tracer FIRE event introduced the recent graduates to cybersecurity tools and processes, then presented them with a cybersecurity incident to investigate, determining who was behind it and what data had been compromised.   

“It was challenging,” said Summer Sorrell, one of the recent Gallup grads who participated. “With my teammates, we were working together, learning the programs. It drove me to be more observant, more focused.”

Eric described Summer as taking a vocal role during the Tracer FIRE event. 

“Summer was in a group of three,” said Eric. “Teammates would get stuck pretty frequently. She pushed her computer aside, went to the others and said, ‘Did you try this? Did you try that?’ That cybersecurity unit was difficult. It took persistence to stick with it, and Summer did it.”

Summer plans to attend Navajo Technical University and said she is now considering a cybersecurity career and the opportunities it might provide to “make the internet safer.”

Summer’s reaction seems to be exactly the response Tracer FIRE team members hope to inspire.

“I think [Tracer FIRE] opens your eyes to different opportunities in cybersecurity,” said Tyler Morris, who eventually found his way to Sandia’s cybersecurity initiatives group after his Junior ROTC instructor “volun-told” him to participate in a high school cybersecurity competition. “Even if you grew up in a small town and don’t have these opportunities immediately available, they are still a possibility, and you can do them.”

Sandia technologist John Bailon delivered the opening remarks for the Tracer FIRE event. After growing up on the Navajo Reservation and serving in the Marines, John discovered his passion for cybersecurity late in business school and began working in information operations nine years ago, an experience he describes as “learning with Jedis.” John said he sees potential for Tracer FIRE events like the one in Gallup to attract members of the Navajo community he grew up in.

“Like the warrior ethos that inspired the Code Talkers to go off and do their work in the Pacific [during World War II], I think there’s the same kind of mindset in cyber,” he said. “They will come, we’ve just got to keep doing these kinds of programs.”

As they transition from high school to college, the Gallup students will continue to receive support from Growth Sector. In August, the cyber team will conduct a Tracer FIRE event for Growth Sector students who are entering Central New Mexico Community College.

Eric described Tracer FIRE and the other STEM experiences of the past year as making careers in science, engineering, cybersecurity and more seem attainable. “Now there’s something in their head that this might be something they would do in the future,” Eric said.