Society of Women Engineers honors three Sandians

By Laura Sowko

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Sandia researchers Christina Beppler, Ireena Erteza and Anne Grillet have earned 2020 Society of Women Engineers awards honoring “the successes of individuals who enhance the engineering profession and advocate for women in engineering through contributions to industry, education and the community.”

Christina Beppler

Christina Beppler holding her SWE award
WORK/LIFE INTEGRATION — Sandia analytical chemist Christina Beppler has been recognized by the Society of Women Engineers for her “leadership and initiative in establishing a pro­gram of forward-looking benefits that demonstrate an understanding of work and life integration.” (Photo by Bret Latter)

Christina Beppler, an analytical chemist in explosives technologies, is Sandia’s first recipient of SWE’s Work/Life Integration Award, recognizing her “leadership and initiative in establishing a program of forward-looking benefits that demonstrate an understanding of work and life integration.”

In 2015, Christina’s work/life balance changed profoundly with the birth of her first child. That year, she co-founded what is now the Sandia Parents Group. Born out of the New and Expectant Parents group and starting from emails and informal meetings at lunch where new parents shared their experiences, SPG has grown into a formally recognized Employee Resource Group with more than 430 members.

“Many new parents tend to be early-career at the same time,” Christina said. “Parents realize they need more support, especially those without extended family nearby. Going to work, picking up their kids, going home and putting the kids to bed can be isolating, leaving little time for social connections.”

SPG advocates for working parents in four main areas: benefits and leave, workplace lactation accommodation, flexible work policies and childcare. The group offers parents a place to discuss ideas and issues, find resources and be reminded that they are not alone.

“The overall goal for SPG is to engage and retain working parents at Sandia across the workforce,” Christina said, adding that “parents can be the least engaged group of employees.” Flexible and remote work options are critical to keeping people at Sandia, and in turn, reducing the cost of attrition.

Until 2019, Sandia did not have paid family leave, so Christina analyzed data from a 2018 SPG membership survey and co-authored a white paper on the benefits of paid family leave for employees and the business case for Sandia. The white paper was shared with Sandia Women’s Action Network, Sandia Women’s Connection in California, other resource group members and Sandia leadership.

Sandia began offering paid family leave in January of 2019, and thanks to SPG’s role in socializing the benefit, 400 employees had used it within the first six months. The program benefits those who use it, and it also is a valuable employee recruiting and retention tool.

Christina and SPG also sought lactation accommodation for mothers returning to work. Sandia now has a corporate lactation working group and the first lactation accommodation policy. Sandia also has created private lactation rooms for nursing mothers across its campuses.

Most recently, SPG has been at the forefront for many parents with the onset of the pandemic. Christina said so many of the issues new parents face have been exacerbated by COVID-19.

“Sandia tends to hire people who do everything with exacting precision — they have to — and they carry that into the rest of their lives. We try to run life efficiently and COVID has toppled that,” she said. “As engineers and knowledge workers, thinking is a lot of our output, and doing an analysis requires time. Time is now fragmented.”

Christina said parents are stressed having schooling and work, creating two full-time jobs. Kids are stressed and having issues. They are routine-oriented, and this has been disrupted. There are no off hours anymore. SPG can’t necessarily solve some of these issues, she said, but SPG has been supportive in providing a place for parents to commiserate, share ideas for coping and locate resources.

Christina said she is grateful for this award and feels privileged to have Sandia nominate her and for SWE to recognize her efforts.

“None of this would have happened without the support of the group and it has succeeded beyond my dreams,” she said.

Ireena Erteza

Ireena Erteza holding her SWE award
ADVOCATING FOR WOMEN — Sandia electrical engineer Ireena Erteza has been recognized by the Society of Women Engineers “for executing technical innovation and leadership, and for steadfast advocacy to empower women and promote diversity and inclusion in engineering and STEM.” (Photo by Lonnie Anderson)

Ireena Erteza has earned SWE’s 2020 Advocating for Women in Engineering Award “for executing technical innovation and leadership, and for steadfast advocacy to empower women and promote diversity and inclusion in engineering and STEM.”

In her 27 years at Sandia, Ireena has built a highly successful engineering career while being a devoted advocate for women in STEM. A distinguished member of technical staff, Ireena is a national expert in synthetic aperture radar algorithms and a processing systems architect. She uses her expertise and strong technical leadership to develop and execute projects with national impact.

“I have been so fortunate in my career to work in a number of intriguing, cutting-edge fields, from integrated optics, optical interconnects, high-performance computing, ground sensor signal processing and SAR,” Ireena said. “One thing that I have always loved is when you can bring together different research areas to achieve breakthroughs at the intersections.

“I have worked many years in the SAR field to gather and process information effectively in a different part of the spectrum than we see with our human eyes,” she said. “Lately, I’ve been merging the areas of artificial intelligence and machine learning with my SAR expertise to make advancements toward intelligently incorporating vast amounts of unfamiliar information and distilling it into essential information for humans.”

Ireena pays that love of engineering forward as she pursues her role as both advocate and mentor. “I am passionate about the need for both advocacy and mentorship. Mentorship is more about providing career advice, whereas an advocate knows you and your work, so that they can publicly support you and create opportunities or open doors for you,” she said.

Mentors can be at any level, whereas an advocate has to be in a position of power to be able to provide advocacy. “It is important for people in more senior and leadership positions to aspire to advocate for diverse candidates. We will not make needed progress without advocacy from everyone,” she said.

“I am passionate about diversity AND inclusion,” Ireena said. Throughout her career, Ireena has endeavored to create inclusive environments in which everyone can be safe and be encouraged to bring their authentic self to work. “Without this, you can’t have happy and comfortable teams, and without that, you won’t have productive teams. We all need to be able to look forward to going to work.” 

While advocating for women and Black, Indigenous and other people of color is important to Ireena, she also is devoted to advocating for younger engineers, regardless of gender or ethnicity. “It has been so rewarding to make a palpable difference in the lives and careers of young students and people in our workforce and community. I take my role as a mentor and a de facto role model very seriously. I’d like to encourage others to take on these roles as it can be very gratifying.”

Ireena also uses public platforms to highlight engineering and STEM as imaginative, philanthropic career paths. “I personally can’t think of a better career — engineering is highly creative and challenging, but it gives you the opportunity to build teams and work with others to make big differences in the world.”

For the past two years, Ireena has been dedicated to improving opportunities for career growth at Sandia in both management and technical positions. “Leadership occurs in both the management and technical lines,” she said. “In particular, distinguished members of the technical staff, senior scientists and fellows help set technical leadership direction for the Labs, our customers and our communities.

“We have development programs and growth opportunities for management, but we need similar programs and opportunities for technical leadership along the technical line. It’s important for Sandia’s future to give our young, strong technical staff the choice and opportunity for leadership development and growth in either the technical or management lines.”

Anne Grillet

Anne Grillet holding her SWE award
PRISM AWARD — Sandia chemical engineer Anne Grillet has been recognized by the Society of Women Engineers for charting “her own path in the STEM fields by demonstrating a variety of outstanding career leadership activities in a technical field.” (Photo by Lonnie Anderson)

Anne Grillet, a distinguished member of technical staff, has earned SWE’s 2020 Prism Award recognizing a woman “who has charted her own path in the STEM fields by demonstrating a variety of outstanding career leadership activities in a technical field.”

The Prism Award is fitting for Anne, whose technical collaborations span Sandia’s mission space from materials science, geosciences and energy to explosives and nuclear deterrence. She applies her agility in diverse technical disciplines and provides significant technical and programmatic leadership.

From 2014 to 2019, Anne assumed the role of program owner for the Aleph plasma physics code. An expert in chemical engineering, Anne partnered with Jeremiah Boerner and used her strong leadership skills in team building and technical versatility to rebuild the Aleph team after several key people left the project. Coming from a diverse background and having a fundamental understanding of physical processes allowed her to jump in.

“Engineering is, by definition, broad, and within chemical engineering, I took a lot of math and chemistry but also studied across other engineering fields like electrical and mechanical,” she said. 

Most recently, Anne has been working with Rekha Rao and Christine Roberts on a Laboratory Directed Research and Development project looking at how stress is formed in materials during phase changes. This fundamental research will impact new physical models.

“If you have epoxy curing, current computational models don’t capture the transition from liquid to solid gracefully. You have to stop the simulation and say, ‘fluid, you are now a solid.’ We are trying to develop an understanding of phase changes, and on the experimental side, I am developing diagnostics to gather details for validation for computational models that can be used for applications in the future.”

For Anne, transitions of another type have not slowed her down: those required by COVID-19 have kept her busy. As an experimentalist, she has spent more time on site while her husband, also a Sandia employee, works more from home. Her two kids doing school remotely can handle technology and work independently.

Anne said she spent the first part of the summer working with Martin Nemer on a Rapid Response Laboratory Directed Research and Development project decontaminating N95 respirators — looking at decon processes and how they affect mask fit and function — in partnership with the University of New Mexico Hospital. She said the work has been very satisfying but demanding, and she recognizes how different the impact of COVID-19 would be if she were in another phase in her parenting; if her kids weren’t independent.

While Anne has worked across technical disciplines, she also has contributed to Sandia’s strategic goals for diversity and inclusion. She chairs the Sandia Women’s Action Network’s Professional Development committee, helping connect Sandia’s diverse workforce with internal and external resources for career advancement. She also has contributed her leadership skills to the Women in Chemical Engineering committee and Societal Impact operating council of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

Anne thinks the future for women at Sandia is a positive one. “Opportunities continue to be brighter and brighter for women, and having flexible work environments and the ability to be valued while you are taking advantage of a flexible schedule will contribute to gaining and retaining women in engineering.”

Pandemic challenges, Anne believes, will likely be temporary, and the opportunities afforded women will continue to look more and more equal over time.

Although she has been in the same job for 19 years, Anne said the variety of her work gives her a wonderful sense of fulfillment. “There’s the challenge of seemingly intractable problems, and you get to solve them. You help people accomplish goals and get where they need to be, and that is very satisfying,” she said. “Science lets you appreciate the beauty of how everything is put together.”