3 outstanding students named Athena Engineering Scholars at LANL

Lindsay O’Brien, Olivia Stella, Sophie Weidenbenner are 2021 cohort

September 13, 2021

0913 Athena
Lindsay O’Brien, Olivia Stella and Sophie Weidenbenner

The Athena Engineering Scholars Program is designed to inspire women to achieve their full potential as future leaders in engineering. The Athena Program is open to all LANL women, students and staff who are interested in pursuing a graduate engineering degree.

The program offers educational assistance for engineering graduate degrees to highly qualified and motivated women engineers; it provides professional development and networking opportunities during the scholar’s studies and throughout her early LANL career, resulting in a diverse technical engineering staff to help meet LANL’s nuclear security mission.

Those selected for the Athena Engineering Scholars Program were nominated by mentors who will help them with their research and support them professionally as developing engineers.

Meet the 2021 cohort

Lindsay O’Brien

Lindsay O’Brien plans to pursue a doctorate in interdisciplinary engineering at Texas A&M University with a focus on welding engineering and materials science. “My project is aimed at improving our understanding of and developing predictive tools to compensate for weld distortion in a variety of materials,” she said. 

O’Brien joined LANL in January 2020 and is an R&D engineer on the Welding and Joining team in Sigma division. “My thesis will give me the opportunity to take a deep dive into welding research, gain a better understanding of materials science fundamentals and enable me to take advantage of the resources at LANL and in academia.” 

Athena program benefits: “Earning an advanced degree after starting a job at LANL isn’t necessarily traditional,” said O’Brien. “But getting to share that experience with other women in the Athena Program along with the program’s mentorship and support from the Sigma division gave me the confidence to take the leap. As the program grows, I hope other women who may be nervous to pursue a graduate degree, like I was, will be encouraged to do so.”

O’Brien said: “The Athena Program has an emphasis on service. Having a program that supports not just academic growth but also community engagement allows me to develop stronger ties to LANL and its surrounding community. And the chance to network with fellow Athena scholars and create connections across the Laboratory’s disciplines will deepen my understanding LANL’s cutting-edge science.” 

Successes and accomplishments: “I’ve contributed to a variety of year-end reports and proposals (such as the LDRD proposal that is the basis for my research), given several presentations, volunteered for engineering outreach activities, got involved with WESST and participated in several LANL wellness activities.”

Outside the Lab: “I like to get outside as much as possible to run and hike — sometimes combine the two and trail run,” O'Brien said. “Coming from the rugged Northeast, nothing beats the trail conditions and views in New Mexico!”

Olivia Stella

Olivia Stella is pursuing a doctorate in systems engineering at Colorado State University, where she studies cybersecurity in critical infrastructure and cyber-physical systems.

Stella works in Space Data Science and Systems group supporting System Development, Integration and Security. She performs Information System Security Officer (ISSO) duties, software project management work and software development. She provides cyber security, infrastructure support and tool support. “Using my experience in the aerospace industry, my goal is to develop a product security program to enhance the security posture of our Intelligence and Space Research programs,” said Stella. 

Athena Program benefits: “Cybersecurity is relatively new compared to the other science and STEM fields,” Stella said. “When I first started university, there was not a cybersecurity degree, but cybersecurity deserves as much attention as other STEM fields. I want to apply my research and involvement with the Athena Program to help my co-workers solve real-world problems.”

“A few years ago, I spoke to the computer science and engineering department at my alma mater, California State University, Fullerton,” said Stella. “I talked about how the cybersecurity program wasn’t easy, and I wanted to change majors often. I stuck with it and found my first internship before graduation. Afterward, a student said that I was the first young woman of color she met with a successful tech career. She wanted to quit computer science and change majors, but she figured that if I could do it, she could too.”

Successes and accomplishments: “I appreciate that LANL supports education. Within my first six months, I earned another cybersecurity certification. And I’ve had abstracts accepted at two conferences this year.”

Outside the Lab: “I play the trumpet and French horn, I have presented at several cybersecurity conferences and I curl — yes, ice curling!”

Sophie Weidenbenner

Sophie Weidenbenner is pursuing a doctorate in nuclear engineering at Oregon State University, where she studies instrumentation development for nondestructive nuclear material analysis.

“This area will allow me to support nondestructive assay (NDA) technologies such as decay energy spectroscopy (DES) and the microcalorimeter gamma detection systems developed by the Low-Temperature Detector (LTD) team and will enable me to gain Weidenbenner in an area that is vital to safeguards and directly supports our mission.”

Sophie works in the Safeguards Science and Technology group with the Low-Temperature Detector R&D team. “I focus on microcalorimeter decay energy spectroscopy measurements and instrumentation and on developing a new sample preparation technique for this type of measurement,” she said.

Athena Program benefits: “I see the Athena Program helping women like me reach leadership positions, filling roles in fields that have historically been male-dominated and giving women more female role models in these fields. In high school, I found myself shying away from the engineering classes because they were seen as ‘classes for boys.’ My hope is that this stigma will disappear altogether as more women fill traditionally male-filled engineering positions. I can see the Athena Program having an impact on eliminating this stigma and helping women gain a more prominent role in the engineering field.”

Successes and accomplishments: “I spent 2019 working with the Off-Site Source Recovery Program. In March 2021, I presented my work on DES sample preparation techniques at a virtual workshop with international attendance. I also received the Nuclear Nonproliferation International Safeguards Fellowship from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).”

Outside the Lab: “I enjoy playing competitive volleyball and participating in some of the amateur leagues in Santa Fe (pre-COVID). I enjoy weekend backpacking trips and snowboarding at the local ski hills.”