After an interest in nuclear engineering took her half a world away, Athena Sagadevan never looked back

Reportedly the first Malaysian Indian woman to have a doctorate in nuclear engineering

April 29, 2021

Sagadevan Athena

For the Lab’s global security mission, Athena Sagadevan is researching safeguards for nuclear microreactors. Small enough to fit on the back of a semi-truck, these fail-safe machines under development will be versatile enough to be deployed to remote locations and military bases for reliable heat and power. Safeguards are needed to prevent nuclear material in the reactors from being diverted illicitly for weapons.

Additionally, her research involves developing detectors for safeguards purposes to be deployed in other countries, and she is actively engaged in the training programs offered by her group.

“Athena is an exceptional engineer who has been a great addition to NEN-1,” said Heather Erpenbeck, NEN-1 group leader. “I wasn’t surprised to learn that she is also a trailblazer — she is talented, persistent and passionate about the group’s international nuclear safeguards mission.”

Athena’s career has just begun, and she has an inspiring tale to tell of how she got here.

Early interest in science

Athena grew up in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, population 8 million, “My father works in the airline industry and my mother is a lawyer; originally I had my sights on becoming an airline pilot,” she says.

As a young girl she had a keen interest in science and math, and her parents encouraged their three children to follow science tracks. Outside of school, her childhood years were spent playing competitive squash and participating in Indian classical dance.

Athena’s first introduction to nuclear sciences happened while studying nuclear energy in a high school physics class; she was soon hooked. She completed her first year of college in Malaysia taking introductory engineering classes and soon after told her parents she wanted to study nuclear engineering.

Malaysia’s nuclear industry focuses mostly on research and on a smaller scale than in the United States, so they soon began looking at American schools. At that time, Indian women rarely left home to study abroad; however, her parents supported her decision. “Growing up, my parents told us we could study anything we wanted as long as it made a positive impact on others,” says Athena.

She was accepted into the University of Michigan. “While leaving Malaysia was one of the most challenging decisions I’ve made, my education has opened doors that I never imagined possible,” she says.

The turning point

While working on her bachelor's degree in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Athena believed she would eventually move back home and get married, as was tradition.

During her time at Michigan, Athena worked for Professor Sara Pozzi in the Detection for Nuclear Nonproliferation group. There, she met future LANL R&D engineer Marc Ruch who was working on his doctorate in nuclear engineering and researching detector development for safeguards. He became a mentor to Athena, encouraging her to attend graduate school. “The impact that Marc and Professor Pozzi had on my life was vital in my decision to attend graduate school and in the career path that I chose,” says Athena.

During her junior year, Athena did independent research in detector development and plasma physics. Of the two, she was drawn to detector development for the purpose of nuclear safeguards because, she says, “This is where research and the real world connect.”

Instead of returning to Malaysia, she decided to pursue a master’s in nuclear engineering.

In 2017, Athena completed a summer internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory benchmarking a proliferation resistance assessment tool so that the nuclear fuel cycles of different reactors could be compared and ranked based on how proliferation-resistant they were.

At the same time, a number of her college classmates and friends were working at Los Alamos, and the instruments they were developing for nuclear testing and training were actually being used by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). That sounded exciting to Athena, who wanted to work at a place where technology was being developed and deployed.

She accepted a LANL internship in 2019 with the Advanced Nuclear Technology group (NEN-2), and worked closely with Safeguards, Science and Technology (NEN-1) staff. Athena describes her first experiences as “mind-blowing” when she witnessed the technology, laboratories and other nuclear scientists firsthand. “The most memorable part of the internship was when I visited the Device Assembly Facility (DAF) in Nevada and was in awe of all the legacy instruments and experiments that I had only had the chance to read about in the past.”

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Athena had a strong interest in nuclear safeguards as well as the influence of nuclear policy on safeguards, so she continued her education further. She received her doctorate from the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Texas A&M, and was a part of the Center for Nuclear Security Science and Policy Initiatives (NSSPI), a program with a strong tie to the Bush School of Government and Public Service where she could also learn more about policy.

While interning in Los Alamos in 2019, Athena says she had the opportunity to learn about various projects that the groups were working on and it made a lasting impression. Her next chapter was back to Los Alamos for a postdoc in NEN-1, where today Athena is fulfilling her dream.

“None of this would have been possible without the guidance and patience of my PhD advisor, Dr. Sunil Chirayath, at Texas A&M. He saw potential within me that I didn’t know was there,” says Athena.

Breaking barriers

Texas A&M and University of Michigan have both confirmed to Athena that she was the first Malaysian woman to graduate with advanced degrees in nuclear engineering from their schools.

In her homeland, a news outlet dubbed her the first Malaysian Indian woman to have a doctorate in nuclear engineering based on information from a Malaysian government branch, Education Malaysia, which tracks Malaysian students in the United States. Additionally, this was also confirmed by the Malaysian chapter of Women in Nuclear, WiN Malaysia.