Lifelong curiosity and looking up

By Jennifer Awe

Photography By Randy Montoya

Friday, March 26, 2021

Engineers ‘advance the human condition,’ says Labs’ deputy director for Nuclear Deterrence

Deputy Labs Director Laura McGill in front of fighter jet
SOARING TO SANDIA — Deputy Labs Director Laura McGill in front of an F-22 model, a fitting backdrop. Laura began her career at the General Dynamics aerodynamic test facility in San Diego, which later became Lockheed Martin, where she blended her passions for engineering and aviation. She was directly involved in early F-22 wind tunnel testing.

For a young girl who was fascinated by airplanes and space flight, carried a notebook of science facts and took apart her father’s watch just to see how it worked, curiosity has always been a driving force for Laura McGill.

This led her to a fulfilling engineering career with waypoints at the Boeing-funded University of Washington Aeronautical Laboratory, General Dynamics, Hughes, Raytheon, and now, Sandia.

Laura, Sandia’s new Deputy Labs Director for Nuclear Deterrence and Chief Technology Officer, likes to say, “Engineers translate the promise of technology into products and capabilities that make life better and safer. It’s the work of engineers that advance the human condition.”

Laura was raised in Seattle, near Boeing’s headquarters. Her father spent 40 years at Boeing in various roles, working his way up to director of administration — and no, his watch never did get put back together as intended.

‘Aviation was a big presence’

“Aviation was a big presence growing up,” she said. “Our family regularly attended air shows, and to me everything ‘up in the sky’ represented the future and unbounded potential. I knew I’d be involved in technology from an early age. My fifth-grade teacher was very influential and encouraged us to be curious and explore.” That teacher was a private pilot and a member of the Civil Air Patrol.

“Through his class I was exposed to modules on aircraft flight controls and meteorology, and it changed my life,” she said. “I developed an interest in the science and history of aviation.”

It was at the University of Washington that Laura realized what engineering really meant, and where an early job in Boeing’s aerodynamic test programs offered the next step to her future. She majored in aeronautical and astronautical engineering and worked her way through school at the Kirsten Wind Tunnel, where she was exposed to the everyday activities of Boeing engineers, as well as their design and test challenges.

“It was a terrific opportunity to indulge my passion for engineering and flight by capitalizing on where I lived,” she said.

Laura still enjoys the thrill of solving real-world problems with engineering and sharing that excitement with others. She was elected a lifetime fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (2007), was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering (2019) and is an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering, where she has taught a number of graduate courses in systems engineering.

Her husband is a private pilot and her father-in-law flew B-52s during the Cold War.

Why Sandia?

After 37 years in the defense industry, why Sandia and why now?

After graduation Laura joined General Dynamics in San Diego. Ten years later she relocated to Tucson, Arizona, with Hughes, and eventually Raytheon, as a result of industry consolidations. There, she served as chief engineer for programs that provided the delivery platforms for nuclear payloads and other advanced weapons systems. She was vice president of engineering for Raytheon Missile Systems for five years, and most recently was deputy vice president of engineering for Raytheon Missiles & Defense.

“I’ve always admired Sandia and its capabilities,” she said. “I knew the people were incredibly talented in technical skills as well as national leadership, so this opportunity was especially compelling. I had a chance to join a critical mission and apply my experience to a key segment of the defense industry. The timing was right, and I embraced it.”

"...Every single day I’m learning more about how we are driving the future in numerous dimensions."

Laura has been on the job for just two months and already has uncovered some pleasant surprises.

“There is so much more here than I realized,” she said. “More talent, more infrastructure and more capability than I ever imagined — things you have to see from the inside. Every single day I’m learning more about how we are driving the future in numerous dimensions.”

Applying innate curiosity is advice Laura has heeded throughout her career, and advice she passes along to others.

“Most of us in this profession are curious by nature,” she said. “If you don’t understand something, ask questions. If you think it can be improved, challenge it with a helpful mindset: ‘How can I make this more effective and successful?’ Yet, the ability to prioritize is critical. You can’t take on everything at once, so focus on the most relevant opportunities and do the legwork to explore potential solutions.”

Near-term priorities for Nuclear Deterrence

With decades of experience as an engineering leader, Laura is focused on areas she believes will best serve Sandia programs and its national security mission. Her near-term priorities for ND will take advantage of the Labs’ unique strengths to increase operational effectiveness, she said. She discussed two of those priorities:

  • Optimize the deployment of expert technical talent from across the Labs to resolve the most critical issues. “As we provide solutions for some of the nation’s most difficult problems, challenges arise that require urgent attention,” she said. “Fortunately, we also have world-class expertise in every discipline that can be rapidly leveraged to lead this important work.”
  • Embed model-based systems engineering into the Labs’ program plans. “This includes establishing requirements for defined capabilities and model maturity at key program milestones. These will replace traditional methods where appropriate and accelerate our development activities. It’s an area where commercial practices can be implemented with even better results, based on the strength of Sandia’s extensive modeling capabilities. We will focus on embedding and applying, to deliver highly reliable system performance with confidence and predictability.”

Model-based systems engineering is the formalized application of modeling to support system requirements, design, analysis, verification and validation activities beginning in the conceptual-design phase and continuing throughout development and later life cycle phases, according to the International Council on Systems Engineering.

“The systems and processes here at Sandia have a long history of producing exceptional results and I want to be part of the team that takes them to the next level,” she said. “I will only take on a new assignment if I feel I can make a difference and advance capabilities. I want to add value, work with great teams and, if it’s embracing technology, too, well that’s just perfect.”

Making a new home

After many years in Tucson, Laura is settling into her new city while commuting back to Arizona often to be with her husband and son, who’s finishing his senior year of high school.

“Coming from Seattle, the desert fascinates me,” she said. “And in Albuquerque more than Tucson, you have real mountains. My family enjoys skiing, so the desert with mountains is the best of both worlds. I look forward to getting out and exploring.”

Laura has managed to remain curious throughout her life and career, and it’s taken her to the helm of national security and nuclear deterrence at the nation’s premier engineering laboratory. The Seattleite and long-time Tucsonan is now a Sandian.

“I enjoy working with brilliant people,” Laura said. “Combining this with Sandia’s deep commitment to the mission we serve is incredibly powerful. I am thrilled to have this opportunity that builds upon my previous experience. I hit the jackpot with Sandia.”