Sandra Begay

Current Position: Principal Member of the Technical Staff at Sandia National Laboratories
Sandra Begay
Highlight There are so many adventures a woman can have by becoming an engineer. Engineering is a great way to help people.
December 1, 2016Her job: Indian Energy Program Lead
Describe what you do in your current work situation? I help American Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages with renewable energy technical assistance. As an example, I explain how solar panels or photovoltaic (PV) panels work and how to save energy before thinking of putting up PV panels. I also have graduate American Indian students who work for me each summer. I take them to tribal renewable energy installations to see first hand what projects are working for the tribes.
Why did you choose engineering? I remember walking from my elementary school to the cafeteria in the cold; I wished there was a warm monorail train that could shuttle me instead of being outside. That was my first memory of trying to problem solve. As an elementary school student, I enjoyed math, science and understanding how gadgets work. I am not a great artist as I thought about becoming an architect. My sixth grade teacher encouraged me to think about engineering as engineers work with architects. I found out engineers are problem solvers and have to be good listeners to hear customer requests. I'm great at both skills and I like to help people so I enjoy being an engineer!
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have? I have two university degrees from the University of New Mexico: an Associate of Science degree in Pre-Engineering and a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering. I also received an incredible fellowship which paid for a Master of Science degree in Structural Engineering from Stanford University.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work? Typical activities of my work are explaining how to take natural resources like the sun, wind, trees, water and through use of technology (gadgets), we can create energy. I also help tribes understand how to think about what energy projects might be useful for them and to think about how to get this done. I also give presentations about my work to others who are interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Summertime is a very busy time for me with 2 or 3 students who work for me and we travel to various tribal energy projects.
What do you like best about being an engineer? I like helping people solve challenges. I enjoy working with customers and understanding the situation where my engineering skill may help them. I also like being unique; I'm one out of 13,000 US engineers because I am a Native American woman engineer. This means I receive great opportunities for projects and I work with interesting people.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of? I appreciate and I am proud of the recognition as a Life-time Achievement Award winner from the American Indian Science and Engineering Society for my work with tribal renewable energy projects. I am proud of the internship I created to teach American Indian students about tribal renewable energy and about being great professionals. I have been honored to work with 36 interns over 15 years and I am very proud of my former interns. I am the proudest of my female relatives that have completed engineering school. I have four of my cousins' daughters who have become engineers; my twin niece and nephew are seriously thinking about engineering when they finish high school.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career? Early in my career, I was studying earthquake engineering when a major earthquake shook the Stanford University campus. I seriously thought I'd quit school and go back to my home in New Mexico. After praying about the situation, I realized that no one can control nature but we can learn how to work with natural phenomena like earthquakes. I also learned the hard way not be consumed by my work. I wound up in the emergency room from pushing too hard; my body proved to my mind that my work was negatively affecting me. I let go of that wonderful job and started a new adventure in renewable energy work.
Please tell us a little about your family. My dad is a Navajo tribal leader but now he is retired. He showed me how to step up to challenges and make the world better. My mom passed away about 25 years ago; she was my first role model. She showed me how to be a great woman professional and be a loving woman. She worked as public health nurse for 30 years. My only sister Sharlene is my daily guide; she gently reminds me not to jump into problem solving but to be a good listener. I enjoy my sister's family and my twin niece and nephew bring joy and fun into my life.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals? My short time goal is to continue enjoying my work and to look to relaxing a little more after the work is done. I'd like to continue to teach others about my work similar to how I guide my my summer interns. In the long term, I'd like to take on different challenges than what I am doing today. However, I'd continue to mentor students.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices? The greatest influences on my life choices have been my parents, my sister Sharlene and my mentors - Mary Ross and Dr. Henrietta Mann. Mary Ross was the first American Indian (Cherokee) engineer and she was a rocket scientist. Mary was an active member of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). Mary almost lived to be 100 years old. I was lucky to call her my mentor and my friend. Dr. Henrietta Mann is a tribal college president and she is a Council of Elders member for the American Indian Science & Engineering Society. Henri taught me how to be gracious but hold my ground. She practices her Southern Cheyanne ways along with being is a college leader. I appreciate how kind she is to all people who she meets.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering? There are so many adventures a woman can have by becoming an engineer. Engineering is a great way to help people. However, you must know "your stuff" or practice what you've learned in college to best of your abilities. I encourage you to keep up with your academic work as it will pay off into an exciting career! I will mention that most engineering jobs pay very well.
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book. I enjoy going to the movies to shift my thoughts and absorb an interesting plot or adventure. My favorite genre are science fiction movies and sci-fi TV shows. There is one particular X-Files show where there's a Navajo medicine man featured and turns out this character saves the world! To me, that's a great plot.