How One Sandia Woman is Paying the Love of Engineering Forward

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Photo Courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories

Photo Courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories

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Dr. Ireena Erteza knew she wanted to be an engineer from a young age. “I always loved math and science, and I liked making things,” she says. Her father was an electrical engineering professor so it should come as no surprise that she learned a lot from him. Speaking of the world of engineering, which she describes as “integrating knowledge to create new things,” Ireena says “creativity and imagination are two of the most important parts of being an engineer.” 

After completing her Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1993, Ireena joined Sandia National Laboratories, where she is a Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff in the Next Generation Systems Architectures department. Ireena has worked in many different areas, beginning with integrated and diffractive optics, optical processing systems, and unattended ground sensor systems. She is most well known for her game-changing contributions to national synthetic aperture radar systems, including innovative research efforts in computation, signal processing, and novel architectures that emphasize simplified workflows, automated product generation and information extraction, and communication efficiency. 

Like many other women in STEM, Ireena admits that she too has dealt with the challenges of imposter syndrome, which is why she passionately pays the love of engineering forward in a large variety of volunteer activities. For over 30 years, Ireena has worked to be a strong role model for women pursuing science and engineering careers, and she has mentored high-school and college students, as well as employees at the Labs at all stages of their careers. Highlighting the importance for representation, she notes there is an especially strong demand at the technical mid-career levels for mentors who are senior technical women and people of color. Ireena is also a member of Sandia’s recruiting and student intern programs, through which she has been regularly invited by some of the top graduate engineering programs to speak to PhD candidates on how to manage the transition from graduate school to a successful research career.

“I am passionate about the need for both advocacy and mentorship. Mentorship is more about providing career advice, whereas an advocate knows you and your work, so that they can publicly support you and create opportunities or open doors for you,” she adds. Another passion is spreading the importance of representation and belonging, “to have a sense of belonging, it is crucial for women and underrepresented minorities to see themselves successfully represented in a wide variety of roles, including senior technical leadership positions.”

Ireena has received numerous national awards, including the 2017 Asian American Engineer of the Year, the 2018 Women of Color Technology All-Star, and the 2019 Profiles in Diversity Journal’s Women Worth Watching awards. She also holds a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of New Mexico’s School of Engineering (the school’s highest honor). Most recently, she earned the 2020 Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Advocating for Women in Engineering Award “for executing technical innovation and leadership, and for steadfast advocacy to empower women and promote diversity and inclusion in engineering and STEM.”

While advocating for women, black, indigenous, and other people of color is especially important to Ireena, she is also devoted to advocating for younger engineers, regardless of gender or ethnicity. “It has been so rewarding to make a palpable difference in the lives and careers of young students and people in our workforce and community. I take my role as a mentor and as a de facto role model very seriously. I’d like to encourage others to take on these roles, as it can be very impactful and rewarding” she says. 

Ireena also uses public platforms to highlight engineering and STEM as imaginative, philanthropic career paths. “I personally can’t think of a better career — engineering is highly creative and challenging, but it gives you the opportunity to build teams and work with others to make big differences in the world.” 

Ireena knows that engineering is a wonderful and fulfilling field, and her hope is to be a role model for all young people interested in pursuing engineering. “It’s important for everyone to understand that success as an engineer doesn’t depend on gender or ethnicity.” To women and underrepresented minorities, she advises, “Let your interest drive what you pursue; don’t let biases about gender or ethnicity affect your decision. Work hard, and you will succeed.” 

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A version of this article was originally published on Sandia Lab News

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