Legacy of learning, leading

By Michael Ellis Langley

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Krystal Kelley and dad, Marvin Kelley
FAMILY LEGACY — Marvin Kelley and his daughter, Krystal, are proud of the work they’ve done for Sandia and for the ways they’ve given back to their community. (Photo by Michael Ellis Langley)

Marvin Kelley spent 32 years of his career as a materials scientist, business specialist and technologist at Sandia/California. Now his daughter, Krystal Kelley, is building her own legacy at the Livermore campus.

Marvin walked onto the Sandia/California campus as an employee in October 1979. He was hired to test materials, something he had done across the street at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory until earlier that year. However, Marvin’s path to Sandia had started many years before.

Dream job: Engineer

“What really inspired me to become a technologist or electrical engineer was Mission: Impossible (TV show), because there was a black electronics engineer working on the show — Greg Morris,” Marvin said, recalling his upbringing in Oakland. “He would do these amazing things. He was behind the scenes, but he would create a portable hovercraft that could fly into Soviet airspace, take pictures and send them to the rest of the Mission: Impossible team.”

When Marvin was 13 or 14, his father, who worked at the Alameda Naval Air Station, brought home an electronics manual for his curious son.

“I was in the 8th grade at that time and just consumed it. Loved it,” Marvin said. “That manual was the water in the cement. Without that, it just would have been lost potential. The manual was the catalyst.”

In high school, two teachers — Mr. Brown and Mr. Cleveland, who taught electronics and physics — fueled the fire.

“My goal — my dream — became to be an electronics engineer. I studied electronics and physics — whatever would position me to reach my dream,” Marvin said. “They were instrumental in taking me to the next level. They took it upon themselves to see that I succeeded. They were very integral to my pursuit. When I tried to do substandard work, they would kick it back: ‘Marvin, do it again. You can do better.’”

Marvin with AMUS scanner
MATERIALS TEST — In the early 1980s, Marvin Kelley showed off the Automatic Multi-axis Ultrasonic Scanner, or AMUS, that he helped design and build to test materials at Sandia. (Photo courtesy of Marvin Kelley)

When a recruiter from LLNL visited Castlemont High School, he offered Marvin the first chance to make his dream come true.

“‘We’d like to have you work full-time,’” Marvin recalls with tears in his eyes. “Wow.” He worked during the day at LLNL and went to Laney College at night to obtain his science degree.

Childhood fueled by curiosity

Krystal remembers an inquisitive childhood, fueled by her dad’s passion.

“When I was a kid, he brought home robot kits. The first time we did one, we worked together on it. ‘I’ll show you how to do it — and the next one, you do it yourself,’ he said. I was dissecting a cow’s eyeball at the Exploratorium at the age of 6, and what my dad didn’t know is that I was also taking my toys apart upstairs at our home to try and figure out how they worked,” Krystal said.

Marvin Kelley helps kids in his daughter's class with an experiment
LEVIOSA — Marvin Kelley shows kids in his daughter Krystal's class an experiment demonstrating magnetic levitation for trains. (Photo courtesy of Marvin Kelley)

“Other things he would bring home were chemistry sets, and when I got to school, I was part of the G.A.T.E. (Gifted and Talented Education) class,” she said, adding that her dad would visit her classrooms with science experiments demonstrating topics like magnetic levitation to educate her and her classmates.

Forging a new path

In 1990, Marvin wanted to move into the analytic side of project management at Sandia to help ensure that the mission he was a part of would be carried out efficiently and successfully. So he asked for something that didn’t yet exist.

“I went to my department manager and said, ‘I would like to get a degree in statistics so I can apply designed experiments to the work that we’re doing here,’” Marvin said. His manager agreed, and Sandia supported him by helping pay for his education. “It wasn’t formalized. It was a case of ‘We’ll make it happen.’ I felt overwhelmed. Joyful. So I worked during the day, up to a certain time, and then went off to Cal State Hayward and studied statistics with a business minor — with the caveat that I would keep a 3.27 GPA.”

Marvin was one of the first recipients of what became Sandia’s Tuition Assistance Program, which Krystal would later help support after being hired as a Sandia contractor in 2004.

“Before six months had passed, Sandia offered me a permanent position,” Krystal said, adding that she secured the role by applying the mindset she learned as a child to take things apart and see how to make them work better. “People here are pretty open to hearing a different perspective on something and taking into consideration how that might work. Things can get piloted and done a different way.”

Role model and volunteer

Krystal Kelly holds photos of her father
PROUD DAUGHTER — Krystal Kelley shows off photos of her dad, Marvin Kelley, bringing a science experiment to one of her childhood classes and demonstrating a piece of equipment he helped design and build at Sandia. (Photo by Michael Ellis Langley)

Krystal, now a part of Sandia’s procurement team, has also followed in her father’s footsteps outside Sandia by positively impacting the lives of students in the local community, just as her father did in her classrooms when she was growing up.

“As a volunteer at Citizen Schools with Sandia, I would travel to Oakland and help out,” she said. “I was working with a lot of kids that were tough to deal with, and they were kind of left behind. I wanted to show them my life as a black woman — that I’m doing things — so they could see the life we’re able to live and the things we’re able to do and give back. And hopefully be like Greg Morris — serve as an example of ‘You can do this.’”

Krystal also took part in the Expanding Your Horizons program in San Joaquin County, mentoring young women in STEM.

“I want these kids to be able to envision a different future,” she said. “I want them to know there’s something more. It’s so easy to get caught up in what you see each day; most kids are not thinking beyond next week.”

Marvin said during his career he also wanted to make sure everyone had a voice at Sandia/California, so he helped found the Labs’ African American Outreach Committee. Now retired, he continues to volunteer in local classrooms, hoping to instill in kids the curiosity and drive to achieve that he possessed as a young man and that he passed on to his daughter.

Sandia community outreach

Sandia offers many opportunities to get involved in our communities and make a difference in the lives of our friends and neighbors. For more information, see Sandia’s Community Involvement website.