Ebb and Flow

By Nancy Salem

Friday, September 01, 2017

Associate Labs Director Susan Seestrom says, “I love to understand things I didn’t understand. Not just science, but history, people. My weak point is trying to solve problems that aren’t mine to solve.”

From the banks of the Mississippi to the mountains of New Mexico, Susan Seestrom followed her curiosity about life, people, and science to leadership at two national labs.

The small tattoo peeks out from under Susan Seestrom’s sleeve, a tau, the Greek letter t, often used to represent a particle lifetime in physics.

“The concept of lifetime is worth thinking about,” Susan says. “Life is limited, and you should spend time doing things that make a difference, and not put things off, because you really don’t know how long you’ll have to do what you want to do.”

Susan was trying, not entirely successfully, to wind down a groundbreaking career in physics and thinking about the things she thought she wanted to do in retirement — read, travel, write poetry, spend time with her grandchildren — when the phone rang. It was Steve Younger asking her to have coffee and talk about an idea.

Susan grew up in Minnesota on the Mississippi, the eldest of four siblings. “Our yard literally ended in the river,” she says. “I remember every night of every summer sitting on the porch waiting for my dad to come home from work and take off his boots so we could go swim.”

Susan’s father was an electrical contractor and her mom the company — Seestrom Electric — bookkeeper. She learned the business and thought her dad was the smartest guy in the world. “He invented things,” she says. “He was not happy with the look of the front end of his Studebaker. He took it apart and rebuilt it in a sleek fashion using fiberglass. He designed and did the wiring for our house. There were a set of six lights that could be turned off and on from six or seven locations in house, including a panel next to his side of the bed.”

GARDENING BY THE RIVER — Susan with her father and two of her three siblings working on a garden in their yard along the Mississippi River near Minneapolis. Susan, in the leopard print leggings, says her fashion sense has improved since then.          (Photo courtesy of Susan Seestrom)

A gifted student, Susan was expected to go to college though neither of her parents had a degree. “It never occurred to me that I wasn’t supposed to do something significant,” she says. “The expectations were high.”

 She was strong in math and took college-level calculus in high school, but classes in advanced biology nearly led her in a different direction. On field trips to South Dakota and Wyoming, the biology students excavated Native American ruins and dinosaur fossils.  “I loved it,” Susan says. “We went out for two weeks and learned about archaeology and paleontology. My first real technical job was putting together a mobile environmental lab for the school district that had exhibits of fossils, plants, and other things we collected.”

Drawn to that world, Susan’s first major at the University of Minnesota was geology, housed in the Institute of Technology at the School of Engineering. She took classes in general anthropology, geology, physics, and math, which ended after one year on the geology track. “I didn’t want to be done with math,” Susan says. “So I switched to physics without really thinking about what that would mean. I became a physics major.”

She liked it, particularly quantum mechanics, and gravitated to the university’s nuclear physics lab. She also got married and had a daughter, Katie. Susan took a year off but finished her credits and got into the University of Minnesota graduate school. “They had a nuclear physics program and a lab, so I became a nuclear physicist,” she says. “I enjoyed the work there and the hours were flexible so I could juggle being a mom. Sometimes I took Katie to the lab. One of my fellow graduate students kept M&Ms in his desk. Katie still remembers the guy with the M&Ms at the nuclear physics lab.”

When the lab lost its funding to build the Los Alamos Meson Physics Facility (LAMPF) at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), Susan moved there in 1978 with her thesis work. She did her dissertation experiment a year later, and after getting her doctorate from the University of Minnesota, became a postdoc at LANL and did three years as a UMN postdoc.

Susan’s marriage didn’t survive the move to Los Alamos, but she met a fellow nuclear physicist at LAMPF who became her second husband. They had two daughters while Susan was a postdoc at Minnesota. “I have three daughters and two stepdaughters, so my husband is surrounded by women. But he has a male dog,” she laughs.

Research and leadership

Susan built a 30-year career at LANL in nuclear physics. Along the way she worked in the Weapons Neutron Research Facility measuring neutron cross sections for certain isotopes of nitrogen. “That was in the days of the Strategic Defense Initiative and one of our jobs was to build a big neutron flight path that would irradiate things a meter in diameter,” she says.

She did basic research into nuclear structure with medium energy probes and studies of the weak interaction using neutrons. She initiated a groundbreaking effort to develop a source of ultra-cold neutrons (UCN) that was used to measure the beta asymmetry in neutron decay and worked in a collaboration measuring the neutron lifetime using UCN. “We just finished the first measurement of the lifetime of neutrons and submitted it for publication a couple months ago,” she says. “My work at Los Alamos came to a nice and logical conclusion.”

From 1994 to 2013, Susan moved in and out of management, serving as Associate Laboratory Director for Experimental Physical Sciences, Associate Laboratory Director for Weapons Physics, Physics Division Leader, and Deputy Group Leader for Neutron Science and Technology. Her portfolios as Associate Director included high-performance computing and computer science, weapons design, computer science, hydrodynamics testing, and material science and technology. She has co-authored more than 140 publications and is a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

Stepping down from management in 2013, Susan stayed at LANL as a full-time Senior Fellow but, thinking she would further edge toward retirement, became a part-time associate working solely on LDRD-supported research aimed at making the world’s best neutron lifetime, using the UCN source at Los Alamos. For three years she got more involved in the experiment, traveled, served on various advisory panels, and led reviews for the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee.

The call                                                     

Then came the call from Steve Younger. “In first six months of retirement, I never got around to doing a number of things I thought I wanted to do. I guess I didn’t really want to do them,” she says. “I did a few cool things like making a very special wedding quilt for my daughter and quilts for various babies in the family including my newest grandchild Hendrix. But I ended up analyzing data eight hours a day for much of the time. I wasn’t quite ready to be retired.”

 Steve’s idea to put together a team to bid on the Sandia management contract, and her role as Associate Labs Director of Advanced Science & Technology and Chief Research Officer, resonated. Susan didn’t want to leave New Mexico, and Steve’s proposal would keep her close to where her husband still worked. “The job had things I didn’t have in previous jobs,” she says. “It was big in scope. It had LDRD and the weapons science and technology portfolio. It was a team that had the potential to take a great lab and make it better. I was excited about trying it. And then we won, and here I am. I love it.”

Susan says her goal at Sandia is to “preserve the great culture and capabilities that are here and make a difference in a few ways that improve the trajectory of the Labs for the future.”

She is driven by curiosity and problem-solving. “I love to understand things I didn’t understand,” she says. “Not just science, but history, people. My weak point is trying to solve problems that aren’t mine to solve.”

She thinks the defining moment in her life was the decision to go to college. “Life is full of moments that alter your trajectory, and every one gives you an opportunity to change and learn,” she says. “Going to college made my life different from my brothers, sisters, and cousins. It opened huge opportunities for me and for my children and grandchildren. Education is transformational to families.”

 All five of Susan’s daughters graduated from college and have advanced degrees. One is a Ph.D. biophysicist at Johns Hopkins University, one is an attorney working in Portland, and another recently graduated from medical school and is doing her residency at the University of Michigan. “While I think my daughters are very smart, they have succeeded more than many people who are just as smart. They have had opportunities because their parents had college educations,” she says.

Of all her achievements, Susan is most proud of the women in her family. “All five of our girls are accomplished and kind, good people who care about others in the world,” she says.

Susan in Kathmandu, Nepal, visiting the home of her sponsored student, Srijana (in yellow), along with Srijana’s mother and younger sister. Ever since Srijana started school, Susan has supported her education through Hands in Outreach, an educational sponsorship program for poor girls in Nepal. (Photo courtesy of Susan Seestrom)

Travel, TV, and a surprise

Susan’s perfect day starts with an unrushed morning and some exercise, like a hike, then something productive. An even more perfect day involves travel. Favorite vacations spots include the beaches of North Carolina and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. In recent years, the family has traveled to South Africa, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Greece. They hiked the Amalfi coast in Italy and, despite Susan’s fear of heights, through the mountains of Peru to the remote Incan ruins of Choquequirao.

Closer to home, Susan likes to binge watch TV shows like “Orange is the New Black” and “Game of Thrones,” and read murder mysteries set in places like the Shetland Islands and Sweden.

She says she wouldn’t do anything differently in her life. “Some things didn’t work out but they all made a difference in some way that I would not change,” she says.

Even the tattoo, a recent surprise. She got it a few years ago in Santa Fe but had been thinking about it for some time. Her husband and grown children thought it was dumb, but that didn’t deter her. One daughter questioned whether Susan had any idea what to pick as a tattoo, thinking that would be a more successful approach to convincing her not to do it.

But she thought of the tau, the symbol of lifetime and of her neutron project. “That was meaningful to me,” she says. “I was retired. I didn’t need to care what anybody thought about it. So I went ahead. I did it because I could.”