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'The capstone of my career'

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Interview reveals Div. 8000 Associate Labs Director Dori Ellis' hidden history, inspirations, motivations

Labs News team members Jules Bernstein and Michael Padilla (both 8524) sat down recently with Div. 8000 Associate Labs Director Dori Ellis to find out more about her. She talked about stepping out of retirement to be part of the new Sandia management team, provided a glimpse of her early years growing up in Wyoming, and shared her admiration of history’s most influential women.

‘LIVE YOUR VALUES’ — Dori Ellis says she is excited to take on her new role as Div. 8000 Associate Labs Director, a role she calls the “capstone” of her career.  (Photo by Loren Stacks)

Lab News: We’ve read past interviews with you where you said you “failed at retirement.” Is that right?

Dori Ellis: Yes, I did. I think I made a mistake in retiring because it seemed like the right time, not because I was ready. I quickly realized that all those projects I lined up for when I retired were finished in 18 months. I was consulting for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at the time and Parney Albright, who was the director then, asked me if I’d consider coming to work for them doing business development. I decided to give it a try and moved to California. I’ve since asked myself why it took me so long to get here. We really have come to love being in Livermore. It’s just a charming place to live.

LN: If you hadn’t come to Sandia, what else might you have liked to do with your career?

DE: One of my strengths is adaptability. So, I could have done a lot of different things. I grew up in a family-owned business and certainly could have gone down that pathway. I toyed with the idea of going into medicine or law. As a single mom going back to school, though, I recognized I had to get through. Engineering seemed like a good way to apply math and science skills and get through in a reasonable amount of time while making a good life for the kids.

LN: What has surprised you the most about being back at Sandia?

DE: Some things haven’t changed much. I think with an organization that has a culture as deep as this one, you wouldn’t expect rapid change. One of the things that has been a little surprising is the size to which we’ve grown. The increase in weapons programs really has been noticeable over the last five years. Sandia/California has grown tremendously in size. The complexity of the portfolio has increased as the size has increased. Having the geographic distribution of the current Division 8000 is also a little bit of a surprise. We have people in Alaska, Texas, Louisiana, and Albuquerque as well as in California — and not just in the Bay Area. We have people in Southern California as well.

"If you have to ask yourself, 'Is this an ethical thing to do?' it probably isn’t"

LN: Do you have an overarching philosophy that tends to guide your decisions in life?

DE: I think that you have to live your values. If you have to ask yourself, “Is this an ethical thing to do?” it probably isn’t. Also, I think that often times you need to make decisions with limited information, act on them, check against the metrics that you use to make the decision, and then if it’s not working make some changes. It’s easy to become paralyzed. You know — more data, more data, more data. Of course, the flip side of that is if you make a decision on too little data you could walk off a cliff. But I think you’re often better off making a decision with time to correct it, rather than waiting and allowing the situation to be decided for you by default.

LN: Who inspires you and why?

DE: I’m a charter member of the National Women’s History Museum, which is coming together right now. It has received Congressional permission to seek a site, publicly funded, on the National Mall. It’s the last available site. When you look at the women who’ve been so influential in this country, they might be a footnote or they might not be mentioned at all. When you start looking at women like Vera Anderson, a welder in WWII, or Alice Coachman, the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold medal, or going back to people like Betsy Ross who probably didn’t create the first American flag, but was very influential in the Revolutionary War, it’s hard not to be inspired!

The leadership of women who really didn’t have much voice inspires me. Their stories tell you that you can make big changes without having a forward position. We need to, as an institution, as a country really, continue to take advantage of the differences that women and underrepresented minorities bring, because it really does give us a different voice.

Dori keeps fit as an avid bicyclist.

LN: Is there one single accomplishment in your career or in your personal life that you’re most proud of?

DE: Coming back to Sandia as an ALD is such an amazing opportunity and the capstone of my career. That’s the thing I’m probably most excited about.

"The leadership of women who really didn’t have much voice inspires me.

LN: What would you say is the best advice that you have ever received?

DE: Probably the single best bit of advice I ever received was this. If you’re unhappy with your situation, the only person you can change is you. If there’s something you don’t like, you’ve got choices. You can either quietly accept your situation, stay and complain about it, change your behavior, or change the situation by moving somewhere else. But ultimately, you’re accountable for your own happiness or unhappiness in a situation.

LN: What is your advice for achieving work-life balance?

DE: My husband and I have a blended family of five kids. And all of the kids were very active during their school days while they were still living at home, in college, and through graduate school. I wouldn’t say we were balanced exactly, but at some point you really do have to set some priorities, set some limits. And balance may not be the right word. It might be trying to reach equilibrium in some way over time. But you do have to take care of yourself. Be physically active. Be a learner. And be engaged — whether it’s your family or your church or your community, there’s more than just work.

LN: What are your hobbies?

DE: My husband and I would have said five years ago that we played a lot of golf. We’re not playing now. Instead, we ride our bicycles. I’m a voracious reader. I love historical fiction, love a good mystery. I’m not much on sci-fi, but my husband says I belong to the ‘clean plate club’ of reading. I’ll read almost anything.

LN: Do you have a favorite book or movie?

DE: I really liked Russka, by Edward Rutherford. If you’re not a Russian history buff, it may be too much detail. It’s a history of four families that started 1,800 years ago in what is now Russia, and tracks their descendants all the way to the end of the Cold War. 

LN: Do you see any parallels from the book to modern day life?

DE: Many! When I read the book, I was working in international security programs. We were doing a lot of engagement with the Russians, both the scientific community and the weapons community. It helped me to understand a little bit better where they were coming from. We’ve been very privileged not to have had a major modern war on our soil. During World War I and World War II, the Russians were devastated. They lost a massive number of their young men. It really has influenced their thinking relative to national security and defense of the homeland.

LN: Can you talk a little bit more about where you grew up, the early years?

DE: I grew up in a tiny town in a central Wyoming oilfield. The sign coming into town said population 253. The town I grew up in… there were two towns, actually. There was a town of people that worked for “the company,” and then there were the contractors. My parents were contractors so we lived in the “other” town.

I went to a school where there were maybe 30 people in your grade level. I grew up in a very large family. I had seven siblings, five older sisters and two younger brothers. My dad was absolutely old school. He was first generation born in this country, of German origin. He really believed that men and women had different roles. Women should be wives and mothers and nurses and teachers, and you should only work until you get married and have kids.

My father was not happy when I chose to go to college. He certainly wasn’t happy when I chose to go into engineering. And he really believed that I would “come to my senses.” My two younger brothers are both engineers. My family’s business did something called ‘well servicing and abandonment’ – essentially keeping old wells in service or capping them off. It’s dirty, miserable work. Dangerous. It was very, very blue collar.

LN: Can you share one thing about yourself that most people probably don’t know?

DE: My kids are mortified, but I was a cheerleader in high school.

LN: Do you feel like now in some ways you’re a cheerleader for Sandia?

DE: I do! I’d like to think leadership can help motivate and encourage the very capable people here.