Julia Phillips

Current Position: Director: Phys., Chem., and Nano Sciences Center at Sandia National Laboratories
Julia Phillips
Highlight Think about what kinds of things excite you - is it the lure of the unknown, a desire to change the world, something else? This may give you some idea of what you might want to do, engineering or not. Don't be afraid to try new things!
November 19, 2016Her job: Home Secretary, National Academy of Engineering
Describe what you do in your current work situation? I retired in 2015 as Vice President of Research at Sandia National Laboratories. I was responsible for developing the research strategy for the laboratory and for investing the lab's discretionary research budget to achieve the strategy. As Home Secretary for the National Academy of Engineering, I am responsible for working with the NAE membership to elect new, diverse members and to represent the broad face of engineering.
Why did you choose engineering? I have always liked to understand how things work. That, coupled with a strong desire to make the world a better place led me to a career at the fuzzy boundary between science and engineering
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have? B.S. in Physics from the College of William and Mary Ph.D. in Applied Physics from Yale University
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work? In my days of hand-on research, I was an experimentalist, spending much of my time in a laboratory making thin films of new materials or measuring their properties. I also spent a lot of time with collaborators who had different skills, ideas, and perspectives than I did. While I worked in an industrial setting, I had summer students, graduate students, and postdocs, so I was able to work with the next generation of scientists and engineers. Over time, I became involved in professional societies and management because I enjoy putting different pieces of a puzzle together to make something with bigger impact.
What do you like best about being an engineer? There are so many things I love about engineering. The most important thing has to be the people. It is such a privilege to work with a collection of very smart, interesting people, all of whom want to make a difference in the world. I have also loved the rigor and logic of science and engineering - it provides and important grounding for hard discussions and arguments and leads to the basis for resolving differences and reaching agreement. I have also been drawn to the opportunity to make a positive difference for society and solve important problems. And finally, there is great personal satisfaction that comes from successfully tackling a really hard problem.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of? I am proudest of the research strategy that was developed while I was Vice President of Research at Sandia National Laboratories. This strategy looked to NAE's Grand Challenges in Engineering for inspiration, identifying a number of "research challenges" that are important to Sandia's future and are much bigger in scope than had been considered before. Working on those challenges has led to new levels of collaboration at the labs from fundamental science to mission delivery. It has been very exciting to watch.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career? I have been very lucky in my career and have not faced hurdles as high as many. The biggest ones have been in the area of remaining true to myself and my own vision of who I am and want to be as a person. One aspect of that challenge has involved decisions about the balance between my work life and family life, with the consequence that for many years those were the only two things I did - almost no other extracurricular activities. That worked extremely well for me but would not be the right choice for everyone. Another aspect was my unwillingness to "play the game" to move up in the organization as fast as possible. This choice gave me more time with my family and allowed me to engage more fully in professional activities outside of my work assignment, but probably limited the speed with which I moved up the management ladder. I have no regrets!
Please tell us a little about your family. I married in my 30's and had two daughters soon thereafter. My husband is a neurobiologist (now retired). While we met because of our science/engineering, we got to know each other through music - I play flute and he plays piano. Not surprisingly, given this background, one of our daughters is now a professional violinist, and the other is pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals? Since retirement from full-time employment, I have been quite busy professionally. For the next few years, I expect to keep up this pace of professional engagement, which includes my role in NAE, service on the National Science Board, some consulting, and mentoring a number of early career scientists and engineers. We moved to the Oregon coast about a year ago, and over time, I expect that my professional engagement will slowly diminish and I will become more involved in the local community. That is already beginning, including some mentoring in the local school system.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices? Various family members have undoubtedly had the greatest influence on my life choices. My mother quite likely would have been a scientist or engineer had she been born at a later time. She was always ordering science kits for my brother and me, encouraging us to enter the science fair, etc. Meeting my husband was a huge influence - without that, clearly, I would not have had children. Our kids and our life together have been the greatest joy of my life. His encouragement and support has been critical as I pursued my demanding career. In the professional arena, the department head who hired me into my first job after grad school was an amazing person. I left the interview thinking that I had to work for that man - and I went after getting a job offer with everything I had. He turned out to be a real champion for me - working invisibly behind the scenes to make sure that I had the mentoring, guidance, and help I needed to be successful. And I always new that there was someone who cared about my success, both professionally and as a person, and who was watching with satisfaction as I progressed. Everyone deserves to have someone like that in their lives, and I feel most fortunate that he filled that role for me.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering? Keep taking math and science classes, but also be sure you have a well rounded curriculum. Be curious about things - how do they work, why are things the way they are, what is going on in the world, how do science and technology intersect with world events? Think about what kinds of things excite you - is it the lure of the unknown, a desire to change the world, something else? This may give you some idea of what you might want to do, engineering or not. Don't be afraid to try new things!
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book. My major hobby is playing the flute. Music is how my husband and I got to know each other (he plays piano), although we met doing science and engineering. No that I am retired, we play almost everyday. Even when I was working full time, we managed to play almost every weekend. For 20 years we lived on a small farm a little outside of Albuquerque. We had animals, a garden, and a small orchard, so our kids grew up knowing where most of their food came from. We've now moved to the coast of Oregon where we like to walk a lot, collect mushrooms and berries in season, or rocks and driftwood whenever we find them.