Women @ Energy features Sandra Begay

By Sarah Jewel Johnson

Photography By Randy Montoya

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Sandia systems engineer recognized by DOE STEM Rising site

Sandra Begay at Window Rock natural feature
PROBLEM SOLVER — Sandia systems engineer Sandra Begay examines a solar panel during a visit to Window Rock, Arizona. Window Rock is the seat of gov­ernment of the Navajo Nation.

Sandia systems engineer Sandra Begay has been recognized by DOE’s Women @ Energy: STEM Rising website, which honors women in STEM fields throughout the DOE complex.

Sandra Begay is the daughter of a Navajo tribal leader and a public health nurse. She is a proud member of the Navajo Nation, and recently received the American Indian Science and Engineering Society’s 2020 Indigenous Excellence Award in recognition of her outstanding work to expand opportunities for Indigenous students and professionals in STEM education and careers. She has been at Sandia for more than 28 years.

Sandra grew up in Gallup, New Mexico, and spent weekends on the Navajo Reservation with her father for his tribal government meetings. It was on the reservation that the beautiful, natural vistas inspired Sandra to “look into the distance to see what is possible.”

Sandra represents the seven out of 100 American Indian and Alaska Native youth who will obtain a college degree — a statistic and humbling honor she does not take lightly. “It’s important to me that people know where I started, and that they know the family I come from,” she said. “I am honored for the opportunity to contribute technical support to indigenous people and tribes across the country.”

Sandra’s passion for sharing STEM with native students and women across New Mexico is apparent in her many personal, professional and academic ventures. In 2002, she created a mentorship program for American Indian interns through Sandia’s Department of Indian Energy Program and was an active mentor in the program through 2018.

In 2006, she was featured in a chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers book Changing Our World: True Stories of Women Engineers. The chapter highlighted Sandra’s work providing hundreds of solar panels for Navajo families in New Mexico. In 2009, Sandra was awarded the American Indian Science and Engineering Society’s Ely S. Parker Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2019, she took a leave of absence to work for Mayor Tim Keller as the City of Albuquerque’s environmental health director.

Sandra earned her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of New Mexico and her master’s degree in structural engineering, with an emphasis in earthquake engineering, from Stanford University. She has worked at leading research and development laboratories, including Sandia, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Sandra was interviewed recently for her feature spot on the DOE Women @ Energy website.

Describe your current role at Sandia. What is the main purpose and mission of your work?

Right now, I am a research and development systems engineer, with a focus in mechanical engineering. I am really working to find a place to do good work, which means I get to be involved in many different projects at once. I am currently working on a Laboratory Directed Research and Development initiative with the mission campaign resilient energy systems testbed and an update to Sandia’s Environment, Safety and Health manual, and I’m involved in a DOE benchmarking activity for ES&H best practices. I also work with the Office of Indian Energy when they need technical assistance on various projects. It’s a lot of different things right now because I returned from a leave of absence in January 2020 after working as the City of Albuquerque’s environmental health director.

The main purpose of all my work, both inside and outside of Sandia, is helping people solve problems. Even my name, Sandra, means “helper.”

I’ve known since I was little that I’ve always wanted to help. I take the skills I learned in school, beyond just my credentials, and I get to work on wonderful technical challenges. At Sandia, all my jobs have been in service to help others — not necessarily to build a gadget — but to build a process or something to help people. So much of my work relates to identifying issues and finding cost and materials to solve the issue.

I was involved in strategic planning for the 20-year horizon for Sandia to meet DOE’s goals and for Sandia’s then prime contractor, Lockheed Martin’s, goals. Now I work with renewable energy to help develop ideas to achieve a cleaner energy future. At the same time, I look for ways technology can help Navajo families have energy in their home, miles from the grid. That’s who I am, I’m a helper, but I use science and engineering to get to answers.

What inspired you to work in STEM?

In fourth grade, I lived in a boarding school outside of my hometown, and my sister and I got to go home on weekends. We had to get up early to shower and get ready for the day, and then we had to march from our dorm to the dining hall for breakfast. We marched in the cold and wind. I first thought during one of these marches, “This is a problem, there has to be a solution.”

I thought to myself, “Why can’t we just put in a monorail?” I did not like walking in the harsh weather conditions, so I tried to solve the problem. Of course, as a fourth grader, I didn’t think of cost or realistic options but seeing a challenge rather than just focusing on the negativity of the situation was a huge step in my thinking. I immediately thought about what I could do to solve the issue.

In sixth grade, my teacher gave the class two-dimensional drawing assignments. I was always great at drawing a straight line, and I enjoyed doing renderings of buildings. One day, he told me that I could have a career using the same skills required to draw a two-dimensional drawing. I said I would like to be an architect, but I didn’t think I had the artistic ability to do that — I wasn’t creative enough — but I could draw a straight line.

He explained that I could be an engineer because engineers work to design blueprints based on the architect’s drawings. The seed was planted, and I knew I was going to be an engineer. Of course, it was certainly a rocky path to get from sixth grade to my engineering degree.

What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?

From the technical viewpoint, I think what really excites me is that we are looking to solve problems for the future. There are harsh realities that keep us grounded as we seek to better the future, but I’m ready to take on the challenge.

It’s always challenging when people ask what I do. I say that I am trying to save the planet because that’s truly what I really feel my role is. That’s how exciting energy work can be! We have answers to solve so many of the world’s problems, but we need to gain momentum. Green energy and renewable energy are so exciting because we can have a cleaner energy future.

From the people side, I enjoy trying to teach others what I’ve learned during my career. Mentoring and coaching students and young interns is my passion and such an honor.

How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?

I think young women and underrepresented groups have be able to see what an engineer does for their day-to-day work. You can describe it in words, but if you can show it, they can really grasp what it means to be an engineer.

PBS filmed a video highlighting my work on solar units on the Navajo Nation, and this video became a tangible way to show what my work can do. It really takes exposure to the work, maybe visiting a site where an engineer works, to solve problems so the women, girls and underrepresented groups can see what the job is all about.

I also know it takes a large amount of encouragement from teachers and community for a STEM career. I think math is still a hindrance for many young women, so reminding girls that it’s okay to ask for help is another way to encourage them to break into engineering. Over the course of my academics, I had many tutors and I often struggled to ask questions. Now I try to remind girls that asking more questions is a good thing — that we can all learn when someone asks a question, that it’s not a sign of weakness.

Minority women in STEM have to understand the numbers and not be naïve. We will always be a minority, but being a minority may give us unique perspectives. It also may give us unique opportunities to do very interesting work.

When people ask me what it’s like to be a female Navajo engineer, I tell them that it feels like sitting at the bottom of the “Pit” (University of New Mexico basketball arena). The whole place is filled with 13,000 engineers, and you are the only American Indian female engineer in the whole place. That’s the context of how I fit into the STEM world. I am the one Native and female engineer out of those 13,000 engineers, but I am always grateful for the honors I receive, and I get to be a part of some cool and interesting assignments. I love my work and the chance to represent others like myself in the STEM workforce.

Do you have tips for someone looking to enter your field of work?

I think when you have your academic credentials, that’s the first step. But when you get into the workforce, young engineers have to know that you really have to work hard for the first five years to build your credibility and work ethic, regardless of what field you are in. You have to prove to others that you have capabilities and that you are a hard worker, and that takes time. You have to be deliberate to prove that you are there to make a difference through your work.

Part of being deliberate is learning how to present your work. You can’t just write reports — you have to learn to talk about your work and present it in a professional way. For example, performance management requires me to write about my work and then present it to my boss. But that’s not enough. I then will be compared to other engineers in other departments, so I have to learn to talk about my work with other managers and staff outside of my department. Talking about your work is not always a natural thing — it certainly is not for me. But when I’m excited about a project, it’s really easy to do, and I’ve had to learn these presentation skills over time.

I also feel it is important to learn from every job you have. Just because a job is not ideal does not mean that you cannot learn and grow from it. The job may be short-term or something you don’t like, but you can work on ways to improve the role and use those lessons to step into another role that you may love. Always learn from what you do day to day.

When you have free time, what are your hobbies?

I love to go to the movies. I love science fiction movies because I enjoy the fantasy and storyline. It’s my way of relaxing and diving into the stories on the screen. I used to be a big fan of X Files, and there was an episode where Fox Mulder, a detective for the FBI, solves a global problem by going to Navajo medicine men. The Navajo medicine men help save the world! I just love that sci-fi can take a world problem and combine modern technology with medicine men to solve the issue.

I also love to cook and I’m a fan of the Food Network. So many dishes to try cooking and eat what was created!