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Sandia National Labs’ Jovana Helms Combines a Passion for Engineering with Securing our Country

November 6, 2013
Jovana Helms

Sandia’s Jovana Helms

Sandia National Laboratories focus on rendering an “exceptional service in the national interest” (President Harry Truman). What began as an engineering laboratory during World War II is now a diverse environment that employs over 8,400 professionals in science, technology, engineering and math. Among the many national security priorities facing our country, Sandia focuses on safeguarding the nation’s nuclear arsenal, supporting and assessing defense systems, moving forward our goal of energy independence, and supporting homeland and international security initiatives. recently had the opportunity to meet with Sandia’s Senior Member of Technical Staff, and Dublin resident, Jovana Helms. Ms. Helms, who earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and then proceeded to complete a masters and PhD in wireless communications and signal processing at the University of California – Davis, actively supports education outreach programs in the Tri-Valley and recently participated in a Women in STEM event hosted by Congressman Eric Swalwell. Earlier this year, Sandia recognized young women for outstanding achievement in math and science (read more…). What is the role of Sandia National Laboratories?

Jovana Helms: “Sandia is a national lab that deals with issues of national security. Science-related problems from across the government come to us, and we usually have the expertise to handle the problem. Our programs and projects change all the time, we have a very diverse portfolio, working on projects from renewable energy and combustion research, to communications systems and beyond.

“Sandia is primarily an engineering lab, with multiple locations including Livermore and our main campus in Albuquerque, New Mexico; about 9,000 people in total. We have some departments in New Mexico that work on pure research, but most of the lab focuses on applied science. Engineering differs from pure science by applying scientific principles to solve real world problems.

“I can only talk about what I do at Sandia at a very high level because of security considerations. I’m currently working on cyber risk assessment, and while I don’t have a background in cyber, having a PhD gives me the ability to apply and problem solve in new areas. I’ve also worked on analyzing our national hurricane program and on applying compression techniques to communication signals. These are just a few examples of how diverse the projects at Sandia can be.

“I feel like we solve very important problems at Sandia that help keep our country protected and safer. I know that what we do isn’t always visible from the outside, but there is a lot of important work being done every day at Sandia.” What inspired you to pursue engineering?

Helms: “I was always interested in how things work. I remember when I was three years old I wondered how light bulbs light up, and I actually put my finger in an empty light bulb socket. I was electrocuted!

“When I was five or six I had a Commodore 64 computer, and was writing BASIC code. And then in school I was good in math and physics and at one point considered pursuing pure physics, but I ultimately wanted to work on practical problems which led me towards engineering.” What drove your decision to build on your undergraduate degree in Engineering and ultimately earn a PhD?

Helms: “I moved to the United States after obtaining my bachelor’s degree in Serbia and felt I’d have more opportunities in the U.S. with a post-graduate degree. I was also very interested in becoming a college professor at the time, which requires a PhD. I applied to UC Davis to be close to my family, who had also moved from Serbia to Sacramento.” What advice do you have for students looking to get the most out of graduate school?

Helms: “Two things. First, choose an area that you are passionate about, that you want to spend years studying, and second, choose your advisor carefully. I think it’s probably easier to get a divorce than to change your advisor! It really is important that you get along with your advisor and are compatible in how you think about things and approach problems. Advisors control a lot of your life when you are in grad school so being able to rely on and trust him or her, is a really big deal. I did end up changing advisors during my time in grad school, and my second advisor was a wonderful person and mentor.” At the Women in STEM event hosted by Congressman Eric Swalwell you mentioned that more women pursue engineering in Serbia than in the U.S. – any idea why?

Helms: “I’ve always been fascinated about why there are so few women in engineering, and math in general, in the United States. It wasn’t really the case in Serbia. Part of the reason might be that there is no preconception in Serbia about girls in math, science and engineering.

“For women interested in engineering that may find themselves in a class with a lot of men, I say prove them wrong! Show men you can be as good or better in science, math or engineering. I always saw engineering as a challenge, and didn’t let perceptions get in the way.” How did you end up working at Sandia?

Helms: “Sandia combines the best of the corporate world and academia: Sandia is product-oriented, because we always have a practical purpose in mind, but it’s also a research laboratory, so there is freedom to choose what you work on and how you approach problems. At Sandia you are less likely to be told you can’t do something because that’s not what the customer wants or because the product won’t be profitable. After deciding not to pursue becoming a professor, and experiencing an internship with a private company, Sandia provided the perfect balance between academia and industry for me.

“When I interviewed with Sandia I was invited to an event where all the best candidates from across the country traveled to New Mexico for a series of interviews. Over three days I interviewed with five or six groups, and got to talk to over thirty people, and one thing that stood out is that everyone I spoke with was excited to be working at Sandia. You could tell from the enthusiasm of Sandia employees that they were genuinely happy to work there. The environment where I was going to work, and the people I’d be working with, was very important to me.

“I did interview with other companies, but when the person interviewing you is miserable or doesn’t present their company in the best light, it’s a bad sign.” Does Sandia have internship opportunities available for students?

Helms: “Yes. Sandia accepts students from many levels, including high school, for internships every year. Internships are available during the school year and over the summer. We are very open and receptive to internships.

“Sandia is also involved in outreach programs. For example, I’ve been involved in teaching a robotics class at a school in San Ramon and supporting a math club in an elementary school in Livermore. We have many volunteers that are supporting educational outreach programs in the community.”


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