Spotlight: Carolyn Tomchik

November 2022 Edition

Carolyn Tomchik, Nuclear Engineer, NSE

Like many matriculating college freshmen, Carolyn Tomchik did not really know what nuclear engineering was.

“I had a very loose understanding that I might like to figure out how things worked, solve mysteries, and work with my hands,” said Tomchik, a nuclear engineer in Argonne’s NSE division. Her interests were many and varied, but she was drawn to learning about carbon-free sources of energy to power daily life: solar, geothermal, wind and, especially, nuclear.  Ultimately, she earned her PhD in nuclear engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and joined Argonne, where she focuses on the performance of nuclear reactor fuels and structural materials for use in next-generation reactors.

“My work examines the operating limits of various nuclear fuel designs,” she explained. “How much can a material or fuel withstand before it fails? We want to engineer materials that can withstand not only a lifetime of normal reactor operation, but also any accident or abnormal scenario.”

This interest in identifying and overcoming limits translates well to another role Tomchik holds as a co-chair of the AET/NTNS Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council.

“I have the good fortune that the lab, current events, and social justice are things I am thinking about anyway,” said Tomchik, who does a heavy amount of reflection, planning, and news gathering via podcasts during her 45- to 60-minute drives to and from the lab. “I am not always stealing time from myself. I am thinking about this stuff anyway and asking myself, ‘What can I do to fix things?’”

She gives a lot of thought to ongoing changes and how the lab can continue doing a good job recognizing and addressing inequities when they almost inevitably arise.

“Society constantly changes, circumstances change and new inequities and disadvantages arise,” said Tomchik, who points to the emergence of hybrid workforces as an example of a group that may face rising disadvantages in mentoring or advancement. “It’s important to understand historical inequities, and it’s important that new and worsening disparities get noticed and taken seriously as well.”

She is proud of the example she sets for her children, who are already impressed that their self-described “maker” mom can construct complex Lego or woodworking projects and help combat climate change through work that will expand use of clean, green nuclear power.

“It’s good for them to see me care deeply about things and work to fix things,” she said. “I talk to them about what I care about – a clean and safe environment, a just and equitable society, their safety and happiness – and then I show them that I care enough to do something.”

Spotlight: Caitlyn Sarna

November 2022 Edition

Caitlyn Sarna, Risk Analyst, DIS

An intelligence and emergency management analyst for the Counterterrorism and Security Planning Group of the Decision and Infrastructure Sciences Division (DIS), Caitlyn Sarna routinely encounters and thinks through communities’ worst days. But, that’s also an intellectual space in which she has learned to thrive.

“I’ve always wanted to help people and emergency management is a good fit for that,” said Sarna. “I make plans, procedures, trainings, and exercises in anticipation of communities’ worst days.”

Sarna was introduced to her field by none other than media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who hired her to handle operations and security in anticipation of celebrity and studio guests on the daytime talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show. Sarna watched, listened, and learned on the job. In her next position at a major university laboratory, she got a taste of managing a true emergency when a colleague was exposed to anthrax. She went on to earn a Master’s degree in science: emergency threat and response management at the University of Chicago and hasn’t looked back since. In fact, she now helps teach the program’s courses to the next generation of emergency managers.

“I have the best of both worlds,” said Sarna, whose strength in language arts, history and reading led initially to a degree in political science and religion. “I am not a hands-on scientist in a lab doing experiments, but I am in the lab culture and I’m able to take scientists’ and industry leaders ideas and data, put them on paper and analyze a variety of threats that may be  hard for others to understand.”

Sarna travels often for work, which can make it difficult to strike a healthy work-home balance. Her husband manages their two children’s schedules with additional help from neighbors and friends. A pandemic-inspired commitment to running and working out have improved her overall health, both physically and mentally.

“I love that I can disconnect form work when I put on my headphones and gym shoes,” she said. “For my job, I prepare for a lot of stuff. With running, I don’t need to prep for it. I just go!”

Another thing Sarna loves is organizing Argonne’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day program, which she says might be her favorite workday of the year.

“It is so neat to see girls have an intimate opportunity with a   scientist, and to have those interactions take place,” said Sarna. “Even If I can just change one life, I’ll do it again and again. We need every girl or woman in science.”

Spotlight: Laura Jamison

November 2022 Edition

Laura Jamison, Principal Nuclear Engineer, CFCT

Nuclear engineer Laura Jamison is fearless. Or, at least, she has gotten very good at overcoming fears.

For example, consider her line of work. Growing up in the 1980s, “clean, green energy” was not the first thing that popped into most people’s minds when they heard the word “nuclear.” Today, she provides technical leadership and experimental expertise to the fuel development and qualification campaign of the U.S. High Performance Research Reactor (USHPRR) conversion program, which is sponsored by NNSA-DNN Office of Materials Management and Minimization.

Or consider her recreational pastime: playing hockey, primarily as goalie. Deflecting fast-flying hockey pucks might not be the safest, most relaxing place that comes to mind when one thinks about unwinding from work. But for Jamison, neither of those things are scary. She loves both.

“When I was growing up, nuclear was a scary word,” said Jamison, who earned her doctorate in Materials Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “However, I became interested in nuclear engineering as the most complex environment a material will ever be in: chemical reactions, thermal gradients, and constant rearrangement at the atomic level, all occurring at once. As I learned more about nuclear power, the advantages of it as a carbon-free power source further increased my interest in the field.”

Now, she works to advance nuclear non-proliferation through fuel development and qualification in Argonne’s Chemical and Fuel Cycle Technologies division. She contributes to the European High Flux Reactor conversion program, a program that converts research reactors using high-enriched uranium into ones that use low-enriched uranium fuel. She also works under the NNSA in the Proliferation Resistance and Optimization of Research Reactors (PRO-RR) program.

“I love the broad impact my work has,” Jamison said. “My focus may be on completing a specific experiment in the lab, or researching a particular material property, but the result of that work can have impact across the United States and the world.”

Jamison also finds satisfaction in simple completion of work tasks or activities, but this entails deliberate suppression of another common fear: Missing a work email.

“I turn off email notifications on my phone so there is no temptation to check,” she said. “I truly step away from work on my days off.”

This strategy, along with the physical exertion of hockey, helps her award herself much-needed mental breaks from work.

Her advice to young female women scientists is to seek out mentoring organizations, be willing to jump into new projects and be flexible about roles. Also, rely on colleagues and don’t feel you have to know everything in order to get involved.

“No one knows everything,” said Jamison.

Spotlight: Julie Carrera

November 2022 Edition

Julie Carrera, SSS Interim Director

Zoom, Zoom! Who’s going to the moon?

Not Julie Carrera, although her interest in science began thanks to an uncle whose university research group analyzed moon rocks and soils from the Apollo missions.

Carrera is the interim director for the Strategic Security Sciences (SSS) division. She considered using her PhD in chemistry to pursue a career similar to her uncle’s before she found a passion for using her technical expertise to inform national security policy-making. Her interest in air travel, however, has lasted, and her work at Argonne has taken her to more than 30 countries across six continents.

Both her career and management philosophy are punctuated by a familiar flight reference.

“I always remember the safety briefing instruction to put your oxygen mask on first,” said Carrera. “You cannot be an effective leader if you run yourself into the ground. It’s important to care for yourself so you can best support your team and set an example for others to do the same.”

For Carrera, this means scheduling electronic black-out times to give herself relief from the strain of being always “on” and spend focused time with family. In her personal life, it means making time to engage in her hobby of cooking and recipe testing and trying to be physically active every day, even if it’s just a 15-minute-long, head-clearing walk.

She also believes it’s important to go where curiosity leads, even if it’s into the unknown.

“I did not necessarily envision myself as an executive leader early in my career, but we introverts have many strengths that are key to successful leadership,” said Carrera, who has also served as deputy division director, group leader and section manager during her tenure at Argonne. “Don’t discount what you have to bring to the table just because you may not fit the stereotype of a leader.”

She continues to work on silencing one of her harshest critics: Herself.

“It’s important to take an honest look at your strengths and weaknesses so you can grow, but it’s growth-inhibiting to think poorly of yourself,” she said. “I learned to view my mistakes as learning opportunities and gave myself grace from my own self-defeating self-criticism. This has helped me beat back counterproductive thoughts and advance in my career.”

Her advice to young colleagues interested in STEM? Stay true to your interests and values. While they might not lead you to the moon, unexpected nearby stars may guide you to a satisfying, meaningful career path.

“If you are energized by particular topics, that’s a great clue to where a fulfilling career could lie,” said Carrera. “Follow that clue!”

Spotlight: Laura Adochio

November 2022 Edition

Laura Adochio, Program Lead, DIS

For Laura Adochio, a Decision and Infrastructure Sciences program manager of a vulnerability and threat analysis program with the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service, making the choice to leave her computer science career in the 1990s to focus on raising her children was relatively easy.

Returning to the workforce 13 years later, however, was not.

LinkedIn and Facebook existed but they weren’t prevalent. Old-school networking efforts – lunches, phone calls, and emerging email – didn’t help her compete with younger computer scientists with up-to-date skills. Remote work wasn’t an option.

“Once I left, I couldn’t get back in,” said Adochio, whose math and computer science degree initially served her well as an IT developer. “I attempted to rejoin the workforce in the early 2000s, but I couldn’t get a job in tech because my skills were a decade old and the market was flooded. No one wanted to hire someone who had to be brought up to speed.”

Adochio had devoted her time to raising her daughters, helping with church and school functions, running Girl Scouts programming, and filling the countless other volunteer needs every community has. Those turned out to be the building block upon which she rebuilt her career.

“A lot of that is really project management, so I was able to pull all of it together and matrix it into project management experience,” she said.

Today, Adochio manages a $3-$4 million per year federal protective service portfolio. It includes a robust methodology and IT system for understanding risk and helps protect federal facilities and the people who work and visit there.

The role also offers her the flexibility to live and work from Florida, where she enjoys evening pool time and observing wildlife, as well as connecting with her three grown daughters, who are now in a stage of life where they may face the same decisions their mother faced years ago.

Would Adochio advise them to follow her path?

“The answer to that is different for everyone,” she reflected. “The greatest challenge of my career was trying to come back after being out, but I don’t think I would have wanted to balance those two things simultaneously. When I’m working, I want to solely focus on getting things done and am dedicated to work. When I had kids, I wanted to be invested in that. In the end, I think I ended up exactly where I am supposed to be. I wouldn’t go back and trade any of it.”