Sandia Labs names first Jill Hruby Fellows

By Troy Rummler

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Fellowship honors first woman to lead nuclear lab, encourages others to follow her legacy

Mercedes Taylor and Chen Wang are Sandia’s first Jill Hruby Fellows. The honorees have each been awarded a three-year postdoctoral fellowship in technical leadership, comprising national security-relevant research with an executive mentor.

Susan Seestrom, chief research officer and associate laboratories director for Advanced Science and Technology, will mentor both Mercedes and Chen.

“Our goal is to provide our fellows with a stimulating opportunity that will allow them to exercise their clear talent and leadership potential,” Susan said. “I look forward to them coming on board.”

The Jill Hruby Fellowship is meant to encourage women to consider leadership in national security as scientists and engineers. Hruby served as Sandia’s director from 2015 to 2017, and was the first woman to lead a national security laboratory. Applications for fellowships beginning October 2019 will be accepted until Nov. 1.

Mercedes Taylor, ion collector

Hruby fellow Mercedes Taylor
ION COLLECTOR — Hruby Fellow Mercedes Taylor will develop new water-purifying materials that capture potentially hazardous ions.  (Photo by Phil Bunting)

Working as a chemist for the National Institutes of Health prior to graduate school, Mercedes found herself drawn to the idea of a career in government research. “I loved the ability to pursue promising projects regardless of a corporate bottom line while still working in an environment of cutting-edge professional research,” she said. Mercedes went on to earn a doctorate in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley.

Her ideal career path, she added, leads to a leadership position at a national laboratory, where she would head research that supports national security and global peace. An opportunity to work at Sandia seemed a perfect fit. “The Jill Hruby Fellowship will give me the chance to establish that career.”

Over the next three years, her research will aim to develop new porous plastics that purify water by soaking up ions — electrically charged atoms and molecules — with an emphasis on negatively charged ions, called anions. Materials that can target a particular ion selectively, even in the presence of many other ions, could be especially useful to national security, by identifying chemical warfare agents, radioactive material or harmful natural impurities like arsenic in a water sample. Current technologies to remove various ions from water on an industrial scale leave much to be desired, so the work could also find practical use in desalination plants.

As climate change and population growth are projected to make drinking water scarcer globally over the coming decades, Mercedes hopes her work will provide relief and security.

Chen Wang, soot detective

Hruby fellow Chen Wang

SOOT DETECTIVE — Chen Wang, pictured speaking here, will analyze soot precursor molecules with microscopy and design computational models for cleaner-burning combustion engines.  (Photo courtesy of Chen Wang)

Chen, who earned a doctorate in materials science at the University of California, Irvine, will begin her fellowship pursuing the understanding of pollution from combustion engine systems to help improve energy efficiency and safety, and reduce environmental impact.

To achieve that, Chen will seek to further engineers’ understanding of how the smallest particles of soot originate inside a flame. That’s a complicated question. A fire is a tangle of physical and chemical changes that feed off each other and often occur simultaneously. Much research in this field, including a new Sandia-led theory recently published in Science, has been conducted by characterizing the mass of particles extracted from a flame. Chen’s research will instead capture molecular-resolution images of these tiny particles so she can design computer simulations that model how the particles interact with one other. She will then test her computational predictions at Sandia’s Combustion Research Facility in Livermore, California, a specialized laboratory with equipment that can mimic the environment inside an engine.

Chen says the Hruby Fellowship will help her continue to encourage public interest in science and environmental issues while promoting the public image of female scientists. As a graduate student and through the Association of Women in Science, she organized science activities for kids and families in downtown Riverside, California. She later expanded to large-scale workshops held at a Discovery Cube children’s science museum in Santa Ana, California.

“I saw it as an opportunity to do something more, to build the foundation of what the Hruby Fellowship will become in coming years.”

The Jill Hruby Fellowship is supported by Laboratory Directed Research and Development.