Staffing Management

Optimas 2019 General Excellence Winner: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

By Andie Burjek

Oct. 28, 2019

Each year during Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Student Poster Symposium, interns make posters representing the work they’ve accomplished during their tenure at the Bay Area federal research facility.

The sheer number of 2019’s interns, however, took the annual event to an entirely new level.

Compared to 278 students who presented their work last year, 2019 boasted 382 students presenting work in STEM topics such as global security, computing, engineering and other related topics. This year the symposium took place in three sessions over two days in August followed by the awards ceremony.

From left, Jan Patrick Lehr, Elizbeth Grace, Christopher Lam, Michael Wadas, Susan Lowder, Sam Iaquinta, Trevor Pollack and Courtney Quinn. Lowder oversees the student hiring program and the interns participated in Lawrence Livermore’s Student Poster Symposium.

The event is the culmination of a three-month project that encompasses much of the organization while partnering Lawrence Livermore with regional schools. It also bolsters the lab’s future workforce.

For excelling in at least six out of 10 Optimas categories, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is the 2019 Optimas Award winner for General Excellence. Its efforts to enhance its internship program and improve its hiring pipeline through a comprehensive and inclusive internship program showed excellence in Corporate Citizenship, Innovation, Managing Change, Partnership, Recruiting, Training and Vision and place it among this elite group of organizations.

Susan Lowder, scholars and visiting scientists group lead at Lawrence Livermore, coordinates the event so that everyone on her team and employees in other departments know their roles and responsibilities to ensure that everything gets organized for the symposium.

“We didn’t know if we’d have enough space for everyone, but we managed to get them in. Next year we’re probably going to have to do four sessions. It just keeps growing,” said Lowder, who has been involved with the event for a decade and oversees the student hiring program at Lawrence Livermore along with her staff of nine. In addition, 250 volunteers also help make the symposium run smoothly.

A Long-Term View on the Hiring Pipeline

The program enhances Lawrence Livermore’s hiring pipeline, said Lisa Hsu, operations manager at Lawrence Livermore, in the organization’s award application.

“To ensure we recruit a talented workforce on behalf of national security, the lab aims to attract strong talent early on in a person’s career,” she said.

“Many times something they might create we later use. They’re doing things that are very noteworthy.”

— Susan Lowder, scholars and visiting scientists group lead, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

For the Student Poster Symposium, interns — typically undergrads or graduate students — make posters and present the project they’ve been working on for the three-month internship, according to Lowder. Students mostly intern in the summer but may also in the fall or spring.

Mentors assign projects to students and help them finish on time, and finding interested mentors is an organizationwide process. Employees who work in any one of Lawrence Livermore’s six departments — physical and life sciences, global security, weapons and complex integration, National Ignition Facility and photon science, computing, and engineering — will put up their own job posting, go through résumés and find a student to mentor.

Susan Lowder, right, with Elizabeth Grace, a fourth-year graduate student at Georgia Institute of Technology majoring in physics, and her poster submission. Grace’s research focus is in ultrafast optics and digital holography, and laser-plasma interactions.

“The work [students] do is sometimes work we want to do, but for some reason we haven’t been able to. And it’s important work,” Lowder said. “They get assigned this project, and many times something they might create we later use. They’re doing things that are very noteworthy.”

Mentors aren’t the only ones who help students with their projects. After students complete the work, they must go through a “review and release process” — an efficient and customer-friendly review process which the information management team provides to manage, protect and disseminate the Laboratory’s valuable information before it is released to the intended audience, Lowder said. Experts within the organization who know the ins and outs of the process offer guidance to students, helping them learn this valuable skill for their chosen field.

Further, a team with doctorates who are experts on the presentation of technical posters teach students how to create and present their posters.

The program helps Lawrence Livermore develop its workforce, Lowder said. At the end of summer, departments can look at graduates with bachelor’s or master’s degrees as potential candidates. This can be helpful for competitive positions, like those in the computing or engineering, Lowder added. With a degree in computer science, for example, candidates are employable and ready to work with a bachelor’s degree.

“Many interns, once they come here, they want to stay,” Lowder said.

Also read: Webasto, Optimas 2017 General Excellence Winner

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Also read: AMB Group, Optimas 2019 General Excellence Winner

Neurodiversity in the STEM Pipeline

Diversity and inclusion is one key factor in the success of this program, and neurodiversity — the acceptance of people with neurological differences such as autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, ADHD and Tourette syndrome — has been a strong area of focus for the past several years, Lowder said.

Lawrence Livermore partnered with the Orion Academy, a prep school for students with neurocognitive disabilities such as learning disorders and Asberger syndrome, four years ago. That’s how it came to hire an intern named Sam, who is responsible along with his mentor Matt Toomey for creating the iPad app that judges still use to evaluate student posters at the symposium. The app calculates who the symposium winners will be based on the judges’ scores. Previously, scores were recorded on paper and judges had to calculate winners manually.

Left (back): Sam Iaquinta (arm of chair), Christopher Lam, Courtney Quinn, Elizabeth Grace and Susan Lowder. Front: Michael Wadas, Jan Pat-rick Lehr and Trevor Pollack.

Since then, the organization has expanded its neurodiversity efforts, Lowder said. Lawrence Livermore has created a committee called The Abilities Champions, which is vital in finding mentors who are interested in mentoring neurodiverse students.

The people in this committee have a passion for this diversity initiative, Lowder said. They have connections with people in various departments and use their strengths to network and find employees who have the competencies to take on a mentee with autism spectrum disorder or who has a different way of thinking.

It’s amazing how many Lawrence Livermore employees are willing to help, Lowder said. For example, two neurodiverse students worked in the weapons integration complex this summer with engaged mentors, she said.

The Abilities Champions also found a source that can help fund neurodiverse students’ internships for a period of two to three months through an organization called the Regional Center of the East Bay, a nonprofit that works in partnership with individuals and agencies to coordinate services and support systems for people with developmental disabilities.

This year, Lawrence Livermore found 20 neurodiverse students through this program, Lowder said.

Looking at this population, many people with autism spectrum disorder are unemployed or not employed to their full capacity, she added. But their differences are workable, and other companies like EY, SAP and Microsoft are recognizing this, as well.

“We just have to find ways to understand each other. It’s a joint partnership. They adapt and we adapt, and then we have a wonderful partnership,” Lowder said.

And the Winner Is …

Just as a lot of work goes into setting up the students for success, the symposium itself requires a lot of organization and collaboration. The scholars team that organizes the event sees involvement from other departments as well, Lowder said.

The IT department ensures that judges have enough iPads to input their scores. Someone also needs to make sure the scoring app is updated. Lowder and her team work with the head of each department, who finds up to 35 employees who will be judges from that department — bringing the 2019 judge count to 150 people. Judges take an hour each to evaluate six different projects and even more time to deliberate the winners.

“It’s like an orchestra; everyone has their piece,” Lowder said.

This year students from all departments did some impressive work, she added. Makayla Arcara, a student from the University of California, Berkeley, with an internship in the global security department, presented her research on “recovery efficiencies of DNA-tagged particles,” Lowder said, adding that the judges were impressed.

Previous interns have also created impressive projects, she said. An intern in the environment restoration group created a geographic information systems mapping tool that can be plugged into certain tools to provide locations. A returning environment restoration student created a new look and feel for the system. Meanwhile, a student in the radioactive and hazardous waste management program developed the mobile capabilities for their website.

This year, the winners got a little extra recognition for their success.

Lawrence Livermore partnered with the nonprofit Livermore Lab Foundation — which is not associated with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — to help enhance the symposium. The two organizations cobranded T-shirts for the students to wear, and the Livermore Lab Foundation provided the funds to give a monetary reward of $150 to each of the students in the top 10 percent. This year that meant that 38 students received the prize.

Whether the students end up employed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, “Our main focus with the poster symposium is to give students practice presenting their work, have them leave with something tangible that they’ve done over the summer, and leave with some experience they can apply in their careers,” Lowder said.

For its workplace initiative demonstrating excellence in the Optimas categories of Corporate Citizenship, Innovation, Managing Change, Partnership, Recruiting, Training and Vision, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is the 2019 Optimas Award General Excellence winner.

Go here to read about the rest of the Optimas winners for 2019.



Andie Burjek is an associate editor at

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