I’m an Associate Laboratories Director and Chief Research Officer — 
Here’s My Career Advice

Sponsored by Sandia National Laboratories

Susan Seestrom

Image courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories.

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Fairygodboss
May 22, 2024 at 3:3AM UTC
Dr. Susan Seestrom first joined Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) as a graduate student while pursuing her doctorate in experimental nuclear physics at the University of Minnesota. Seestrom then joined as a director's fellow and continued as a scientific staff member before serving in several leadership positions at the company, including associate laboratory director (ALD) for Experimental Physical Science. She was even the first woman to be named the ALD for the Weapons Physics Directorate, as well as the first woman to chair DOE's Nuclear Science Advisory Committee and the National Science Foundation.  
Seestrom is now the associate laboratories director for Advanced Science and Technology and the chief research officer at Sandia National Laboratories. And she was recently named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for her innovative work in nuclear physics, especially using ultracold neutrons. 
“Work hard to be successful at what you are doing in your career today, and take every opportunity to do challenging projects,” Seestrom told Fairygodboss when asked about her advice for women wanting to be just as successful in male-dominated careers. “And don’t hesitate to tell your boss you are interested in such opportunities if none come your way!”
We caught up with Seestrom, who has now spent more than 30 years at LANL, to learn about her tenure at the company. Here, we unpack some more of Seestrom’s top leadership strategies, career advice and self-care tips that have helped to shape her career.
How long have you been in your current role, and what were you doing previously?
I have been at Sandia National Laboratories since May 2017. Before that, I was retired from senior leadership at LANL and worked on an experiment with colleagues and a number of universities to measure the lifetime of the free neutron.
Describe what you do in a few sentences.
I have two roles at the Labs. First, I manage a large organization of approximately 1,500 people who perform cutting-edge research and development in engineering, computing and science for Sandia's mission areas.
My second role is Sandia's chief research officer, responsible for the Lab's research strategy and preparing Sandia for the future through discretionary research investments. In this role, I am also responsible for technology transfer, ensuring that Sandia's significant inventions make their way out to industry and thereby benefit the country.
What projects or programs are you currently working on? What about this type of work most excites you?
I am excited by how science, technology and engineering can impact the world and Sandia's unique role. I love being part of making Sandia the nation's premier engineering laboratory for national security and technology innovation. 
How would you describe your leadership style? 
I have a collaborative leadership style. I like to solicit input and achieve consensus, if possible. I understand that it’s rare to have all the information you would like to have, but I am willing to make a decision on the information available.  
Being a woman in STEM can often come with a set of challenges. Are there any obstacles that you’ve had to overcome?
I do not think that I have had real obstacles compared to other women I know. Working while raising young children was a challenge. Early in my career, I experienced the things many women report. For example, speaking up yet having my input ignored while my male colleague could say the same thing, but his input was acknowledged. I think that I have been underestimated many times. But, in general, I have been quite lucky. 
How does Sandia Labs empower women who are pursuing careers in STEM? Do you participate in any employee networks or programs for women in STEM?
I am the executive sponsor of Sandia's Pride Alliance Network (SPAN), an employee resource group for LGBTQ+ employees, many of whom are women.
Early on in my tenure at Sandia, we started the Hruby Fellowship to honor the contributions made by Jill Hruby, the first woman appointed director of a large, multidisciplinary national security laboratory. The Hruby Fellowship is one of Sandias' most prestigious postdoctoral fellowships and aims to develop women in the engineering and science fields interested in technical leadership careers in national security. 
From a leadership perspective, what strategies have you used during the pandemic to ensure your team has the tools and resources to be successful?
Everyone is struggling with balancing work and family care during the pandemic, especially women. We encouraged our managers to give all their employees as much flexibility as possible in balancing these responsibilities. We had a considerable increase in our vacation donation program, which has assisted many who needed to take time off. A few years ago, we adjusted our benefits program to give employees more options for paid leave for family care. We could not do as much as we wanted, due to our government contract; however, our employees have more significant benefits than before.
What’s the most memorable piece of career advice you’ve received?
When one of my colleagues retired from being the secretary and treasurer of a professional society I belonged to, several colleagues encouraged me to consider running. At the time, my division leader advised me not to run, instead suggesting that I set my sights on being the chair. I am not sure that I put my sights on it but, some years later, I was elected to the role of chair.
What are two to three things you specifically do for self-care?
I try to make time for exercise every day, and I do it first thing in the morning, even if that means getting up at 4:30 a.m. Pre-COVID-19, I spent time visiting my grown children and my grandchildren. This past summer, my husband and I drove (to travel safely during COVID-19) from New Mexico to Michigan to spend three weeks with a new grandchild. And I love to travel — although, right now, it is only travel planning that is going on. Hiking, travel planning and Zoom meetings with the family are keeping me going during the pandemic!
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