News

Engineering in the genes

By Sue Major Holmes

Friday, October 27, 2017

Mike Burns’ whole career prepared him to come to Sandia

It’s awesome becoming a special assistant to the president of the United States, but it wasn’t hard for Mike Burns to gain perspective in his job as an adviser to President George W. Bush.

He describes an early meeting with Andy Card, Bush’s first chief of staff: “I remember he brought me into his office in a corner of the West Wing and said, ‘Mike, you’re a special assistant to the president and you can have access to the president of the United States whenever you need to.’

“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ There was silence in the room for a moment, and then he said, ‘Mike, I’m not going to tell you the difference between needing and wanting.’ Turns out I never needed access when I worked in the White House.”

Mike, associate Labs director for Div. 5000, lists Card among many people who have influenced his life. “We all build our essential self from a series of life experiences, and the most important life experiences are the interactions we have with other people,” he says. “So lots of people have influenced me.”

“First bosses are important because you actually think the way they work is the way everybody works."

That starts with his father, a mechanical engineer for General Electric and later a weapons engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and his grandfather, a mining engineer in Pennsylvania.

The influences on his professional life started with his first boss, Gary Deis at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “First bosses are important because you actually think the way they work is the way everybody works,” Mike says. “He was a great engineer and a great guy.”

During the George W. Bush administration, Mike Burns served in the White House as Special Assistant to the President for Nuclear Defense Policy on the Homeland Security Council staff. Mike recalls a conversation with Andy Card, Bush’s chief of staff at the time: “Mike, you’re a special assistant to the president and you can have access to the president of the United States whenever you need to,” Card said. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ There was silence in the room for a moment, and then he said, ‘Mike, I’m not going to tell you the difference between needing and wanting.’ Turns out I never needed access when I worked in the White House.” (Photo courtesy of Mike Burns)

His mentors include two Los Alamos engineers, Val Hart and Ed Bush (“We’re talking plaid shirts and pocket protectors. They could build anything.”); magnet and accelerator design expert Klaus Halbach of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who taught Mike about particle accelerators; former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Sig Hecker; and former Los Alamos weapons program director John Immele. “John let me do what I thought was best on a big project at Los Alamos. He gave me enough rope to hang myself, then he was there to cut me down every time I did.”

People make life richer

Sandia Labs Director Steve Younger was part of Mike’s professional life in Los Alamos when Steve was weapons program director there. He says Steve answered every time he needed to see him about the project Mike oversaw, despite Steve’s business manager complaining it cost $2 million whenever Mike walked in.

Other inspirations include Bob Kelley, chief inspector for the inspection division when Mike was a nuclear weapons inspector in Iraq with the International Atomic Energy Agency just before the 2003 Iraq war; staff members of Los Alamos’ Global Security Directorate, who helped open Mike’s eyes to work beyond nuclear weapons; and Los Alamos’ J Division, a field test division Mike helped re-create for the 21st century.

“The more people you get to interact with, the richer you are,” he says.

The most influential person in his life is his wife, Carol, a senior executive at Los Alamos and “the most brilliant person I know.”

He also credits his daughters, Shannon and Meagan. “They’re influential in that you see the world through their eyes when they’re young and you really want to adjust your lifestyle, your work-life balance, things like that, when you have children,” Mike says.

His Sandia badge hangs from a lanyard that pays tribute to his daughters — half UCLA where Shannon studies social cognitive neuroscience and half Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, where Meagan is pursuing a biology degree with an environmental studies emphasis.

Mike was born in Pittsburgh and spent the first five years or so of his life in the nearby small town of Monroeville, Pennsylvania. Then his family moved to the prototypical suburb of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, just across the Cooper River from Philadelphia. There he attended Catholic school, and he’s ready to assure anyone that whole thing with nuns and rulers is real, or at least it was in the ’60s.

LOVE OF TRAVEL — The Burns family, left to right, daughter Meagan, wife Carol, daughter Shannon, and Mike, pose in the Tuscany region of Italy while on a vacation. (Photo courtesy of Mike Burns)

LOVE OF TRAVEL — The Burns family, left to right, daughter Meagan, wife Carol, daughter Shannon, and Mike, pose in the Tuscany region of Italy while on a vacation.  (Photo courtesy of Mike Burns)

Arrived in New Mexico as a child

The family moved to Los Alamos in the late 1960s. His father had been working for GE in a job associated with the Minuteman missile program, which brought him into contact with Los Alamos engineers whose changes on the project kept interfering with the work for which Mike’s father was responsible. Mike’s dad invited the Los Alamos engineers to the GE plant so they could see what was happening. They in turn invited him to Los Alamos to see why he had to deal with their changes. Los Alamos then offered him a job, and he returned home to announce the family was moving to New Mexico.

“My family kind of knew there was something west of the Mississippi River but weren’t quite sure what it was,” says Mike, who was in a third grade at the time. His father bought a Conestoga travel trailer, perfect for the pioneer-moves-West-theme, hooked it up behind the Pontiac Catalina station wagon and started driving. Mike’s memory of the trip is the car overheating while crossing the Great Smoky Mountains that straddle the Tennessee-North Carolina border.

Mike, his sister, two brothers, and parents lived in a mobile home until the family could find a house. He attended late elementary school, junior high, and high school in Los Alamos.

“My father was a mechanical engineer. My grandfather was a mining engineer. My brothers are engineers. So engineering was what we did.”

As a kid in New Mexico, Mike learned how to ride horses, fell out of trees and broke arms, hiked through canyons, learned what a rattlesnake was, caught horned toads. As he grew older, he played sports, stayed out late, and played Dungeons and Dragons. “So just a normal, regular, geeky national laboratory kid,” he says.

Mike played in the high school band, and he and his friends listened to trumpet greats Maynard Ferguson, Doc Severinsen, Al Hirt, and Bill Chase.

As a high school junior in 1978, Mike met the “incredibly beautiful and brilliant student” who would become his wife.  “We were high school sweethearts,” Mike says, adding after a pause, “Either that, or maybe she simply tolerated me.”

Mike had fun in high school, but turned serious when he decided to study mechanical engineering. “My father was a mechanical engineer. My grandfather was a mining engineer. My brothers are engineers. So engineering was what we did.”

He graduated from high school in 1979 and headed to New Mexico State University while Carol, a presidential scholar, headed to Rice. They were married after getting their undergraduate degrees in 1983.

Both had been accepted to grad school at the University of California Berkeley, so they packed all their worldly goods into what Mike recalls as a very small U-Haul and headed for California. Mike finished his master’s and went to work at Lawrence Livermore while Carol finished her studies under a Hertz Foundation scholarship. Then as a postdoctoral student, she was offered an Oppenheimer Fellowship at Los Alamos. The couple moved back to New Mexico and went to work for Los Alamos.

“We bought a house and became like real people,” Mike says. “Bought a house, bought a car, lived and stayed in Los Alamos.”

When he first started in engineering, he wanted to build cool things — nifty machines and mechanisms. Then he realized it’s even cooler to build cool things that have an effect. He became more interested in systems, and then with systems of systems.

MIKE BURNS, associate Labs director, poses in Baghdad in February 2003 with a UN vehicle he drove around while working as an International Atomic Energy Agency weapons inspector just before the start of the second Gulf War. (Photo courtesy of Mike Burns)

A life in Brownian motion

He has bounced around in his career because of those goals coupled with what he likes to call Brownian motion — the theory of the random motion of particles.

Brownian motion began with his student days in mechanical engineering. Back then, Mike says, you actually sat down in front of a drafting board and drew lines, with some experienced old crusty mechanical engineer telling you how to do the artwork. Mike was doing that in an undergraduate student program at Los Alamos for an accelerator engineering group, which meant he learned what accelerators were. When he finished his degree at Berkeley and needed a job, Livermore lab was building a certain type of accelerator.

“I said, ‘Oh, I can do that because I know what an accelerator is.’ They were building a defense system, a ground-based laser for missile defense. So that let me think about a system for missile defense while working on an accelerator.”

Brownian motion struck again with Carol and Mike moving to Los Alamos. The type of accelerator Mike worked on at Livermore turned out to have a specialized application for radiographic hydrodynamic testing — X-rays intense enough to see through a full-scale mockup of a nuclear weapon. Since Mike knew what that accelerator looked like, he went to work on what became the Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility, or DARHT, Los Alamos’ stockpile stewardship facility after the end of underground nuclear testing.

He started out building components for DARHT and ended up as the project director in charge of construction for the facility. To date, he says, building that machine was probably the single most important thing he’s done in his career.

“But to build a hydro testing facility like that, you end up talking to weapons designers, so you end up knowing how a nuclear weapon works pretty well. Then because you know how a nuclear weapon works pretty well, you also know how to diagnose them without underground nuclear testing,” and that introduces you to another world, Mike says.

One day, near the end of the first phase of Mike’s DARHT work, Los Alamos’ director asked him to do something.

“And I say, ‘Well, I’m doing this.’ He says, ‘No, we need you to do something.’ OK, what is it? ‘We can’t tell you, we just need you to do it,’” Mike recalls. “For me that was like a red flag in front of a bull. So OK, I’m going to drop everything I’ve been doing for the last 10 years and leave this facility just before it does its first test? And he says yes, you are.”

Career veers from lab work and back

That introduced Mike to the intelligence and defense communities. Then, in a break from the lab, he went to Iraq as a weapons inspector, and returned to the US to become part of the world of Washington, D.C., where he helped stand up the Department of Homeland Security. “I tell people I had to go to Mesopotamia and understand really Byzantine things so I’d be ready for Washington,” he says.

He bounced back to Los Alamos, but his work at DHS had gotten him noticed. The White House called to ask him to be a senior director of the Homeland Security Council. During his first tour in Washington Mike would, from time to time, run into Steve Younger, then with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. It was Steve who called him last year about working at Sandia.

“So now I’m at the world’s premier engineering lab as an engineer. How could anything be better than that?”

“So now I’m at the world’s premier engineering lab as an engineer. How could anything be better than that?” Mike says. “My entire 33-year career, my entire upbringing, the son and grandson of engineers, 30 years at Los Alamos, was all preparing me to come be here in this place.”

In this place, his office is decorated with mementos of his career. On a wall near his desk hangs a photograph of DARHT, the white mat surrounding the photo covered with signatures of those who worked on the project. Across the room is a signed photograph of President Bush with Mike and his family, along with a presidential commission naming Mike as a special assistant to the president for nuclear defense policy on the Homeland Security Council staff.

Engineering is in the genes, but if Mike hadn’t become an engineer, he imagines himself as “a history professor in some small liberal arts school, and I would have become a cranky old man, with very opinionated, unreasonable positions. I know that because that’s what my daughters sometimes think of me right now. Maybe I’ll do something like that when I retire.”

Mike enjoys history. When he grows up, he says, he might return to school for a degree in history. But he hasn’t thought about where he’d study. “I’d probably end up picking a subject that really interested me and going to find a place or a school near source documents.”

He’s fascinated by the Renaissance, European history up to the Reformation, the formation of the United States, and its history from the Civil War up to the 20th century.

Love of history meets love of travel

In high school, daughter Shannon made 10-minute documentaries for National History Day. “Being her mother’s daughter, she would go way over the top and we ended up having to take long, epic road trips so she could do field research,” Mike says.

Topics had to do with the Civil War, particularly the Irish Brigade or Irish-related topics like the Molly McGuires, 19th century Irish coal miner activists in Pennsylvania. Carol once drove her through the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania. Mike took Shannon on a road trip through Atlanta, Manassas, Gettysburg, and Carlisle Barracks, the latter an Army repository of documents such as handwritten letters from Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.

In his free time, little enough now, Mike loves to read. Favorite novelists include Patrick O’Brian, who wrote a series about the British navy in the Napoleonic wars, and Alan Furst, who writes mid-20th century historically based spy novels. Mike’s reading, of course, includes history, particularly the Civil War. “There’s a huge number of books like that laying around the house,” he says.

He and Carol enjoy musical theater and they love to travel in the sense they enjoy being at a destination, but don’t necessarily enjoy getting there. Mike describes himself as 5-foot-18, so airline seats don’t fit.

“I like seeing things on the far side but getting back and forth is one of those challenges of modern life,” he says.

One solution is a cruise. The couple has taken cruises to Alaska and the Bahamas and think they’d like a river cruise down the Rhine or the Danube. They’ve taken two trips to Venice, and he remembers the church bells and bird songs in the mornings.

Mike talks about a perfect day, which would be doing something with Carol. That brings to mind a dream of free time with her in Rossnowlagh, County Donegal, a small town on the northwest coast of Ireland, near Donegal Bay, where there’s “a little old hotel, a gorgeous, quiet place.”