Julia Phillips

Current Position: Director: Phys., Chem., and Nano Sciences Center at Sandia National Laboratories
Julia Phillips
Highlight "There are so many things that you can do as an engineer - from solving today's critical problems to laying the groundwork for a better quality of life for all humankind tomorrow."
August 21, 2007Her job: Director: Phys., Chem., and Nano Sciences Center, Sandia National Laboratories
Describe what you do in your current work situation? I am Director for the Physical, Chemical, and Nano Sciences Center at Sandia National Laboratories.  This organization of over 150 scientists and engineers is working in some extremely exciting and important areas.  A couple of areas we are working in are solid state lighting (for a dramatic increase in the energy efficiency of lighting) and understanding phenomena that occur at the nanoscale and harnessing them for applications ranging from solar power to sensors.  While I used have a lab of my own and do research on thin films, I have since enjoyed being able to bring together scientists and engineers to address challenges that are too big for any one person to tackle.  I also consider it important to participate in the larger community, through service to professional organizations, in education, and by engaging in public policy issues that concern scientists and engineers.
Why did you choose engineering? The road began with a childhood fascination with the stars which turned to a career ambition with the help of an elementary school teacher.  My parents’ encouragement meant that by the time I got to college, science was the only thing I considered as a major.  Over time I learned that it was more satisfying to address problems that lots of people care about.  As a result, I have spent most of my career at the interface between science and engineering.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have? B.S. (physics) – College of William and Mary Ph.D. (applied Physics) – Yale University
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work? After I finished my degrees, I became a Member of Technical Staff at AT&T Bell Laboratories, doing experimental work exploring various kinds of thin films.  I really enjoyed the extreme diversity of my job – everything from changing pump oil and other “unglamorous” aspects of running a laboratory and getting things to work, to making and analyzing materials and seeing things that no one had ever seen before, to collaborating with other scientists and engineers with expertise different from my own, to understanding the meaning of the data, to writing up and presenting the results.  Now that I am a manager of a research organization, I no longer change pump oil and do experiments myself, but I still work with a wide variety of scientists and engineers to make things happen that are bigger than what any one individual could do.
What do you like best about being an engineer? The privilege of interacting and collaborating on important problems with some of the smartest and most interesting people anywhere has been an unforgettable and exhilarating experience.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of? I am most pleased to have been able to work with more junior scientists and engineers and have an influence on their life and career choices.  Earlier in my career, undergraduate students worked in my lab every summer, and I could easily see the influence of that summer on the path they have since taken.  In more recent years, I have mentored a rather large number of staff over the years.  I am also proud of the way my organization has created a fertile environment for excellent science and engineering in the midst of a challenging environment.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career? In the late stages of my Ph.D. career, the group in which I was working imploded, and I was left without a viable research group or the support of my advisor.  Many others, including some high up within the university, intervened to help me finish my degree and to provide financial and moral support while I looked for a job.  While extremely unpleasant at the time, I matured tremendously and learned the importance of community and of helping others.
Please tell us a little about your family. I am married to a neurobiologist.  We have two daughters in high school who love science but also have many other talents.  Time will tell if they become scientists or engineers!
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering? There are so many things that you can do as an engineer – from solving today’s critical problems to laying the groundwork for a better quality of life for all humankind tomorrow.  The training you get as a scientist or engineer is excellent preparation for  a fulfilling career, and even for full participation in society as a person who can analyze information from many sources and develop a sensible response. (This is true even if you don’t end up working in science or engineering!)
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book. I have played flute for many years and had the great fortune to marry my pianist (a neurobiologist “by day”).  We continue to enjoy making music together, sometimes including our older daughter who is an accomplished violinist.  We live on a 17 acre farm and raise quite a bit of our food, from fruits and vegetables to lambs.  Manual labor and connecting with the earth helps keep us grounded.