5 Things I Learned About Working at a National Lab

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After completing his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Florida, William Severa moved to the southwest to join Sandia National Laboratories as a full time researcher in the data-driven and neural computing department.

Pictured above: Sandia’s Z machine is the world’s most powerful and efficient laboratory radiation source.

1. It isn’t all cloak and dagger.

Yes, Sandia National Laboratories certainly works with sensitive and classified information—though what I learned is there’s a sizeable chunk of national labs’ work that is entirely unclassified and in-the-open. As a researcher, I continue to publish my work, and I can still discuss my research at conferences or meetings. More than that, there’s plenty of internal support to determine just what is sensitive and what isn’t, so you always know what you can or cannot say.

2. I still get to research cool ideas.

One of my worries about leaving academics was potentially losing research freedom. However, it turns out I’m afforded quite a bit of flexibility here. We are encouraged to pursue grants from a number of external funding agencies, and the Department of Energy has its own congressionally-authorized internal research funding called Lab Directed Research and Development (LDRD). These projects range in duration and scale, and the process provides a great mechanism to propose my own research ideas. LDRD projects are focused on high-risk, high-reward research, so they’re always up for the next great idea.

3. It’s an engaging interdisciplinary effort.

Every day I go to work with an incredibly diverse team. Since departments are centered on topics rather than degrees, we have a truly interdisciplinary effort. My co-workers’ backgrounds range from psychology and neuroscience to climate engineering and computer science (and mathematics!). Together we each use our expertise to contribute to a unified solution.

4. ‘Go ahead; Stretch out and try new things.’

I’m the type of person who is always excited to learn new things or apply what I know to new problems. However, as a pure mathematician leaving graduate school, I found it difficult to expand from my core expertise. At a national lab, I am constantly encouraged to approach new challenges. Some are close to my expertise, and some are a little farther. Either way this freedom lets me push my work into different and exciting directions.

5. They give us our breathing room.

Project timelines are on the order of years, not months. As such, we have the time to do basic research, not just push out a product. The exact schedule is, of course, dependent on the program. In my experience, the schedules have always been accommodating.

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Sandia National Laboratories is a multi-mission laboratory managed and operated by Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corporation, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration under Contract DE-AC04-94AL85000.
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