Engineer pays it forward with meaningful mentorship

Engineer Keira Arce helps summer students navigate the Lab’s complexities

June 10, 2024

Keira Arce, second from left, walks students and employees through the Low-Level Waste Treatment Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory. With Keira are, from left, Roan Shawver, Megan Trujillo and Hannah Bishop.

At Los Alamos National Laboratory, new employees are encouraged to give themselves a full year to settle in and figure out all the complexities, cultural expectations and acronyms in the churning machine of the Laboratory. So how can summer students who have two months to do it all find their way?

Keira Arce, a civil engineer in the Plutonium Facility Engineering division, is passionate about answering that question and helping college students have the best possible experience from the moment they enter the Lab’s facilities.

Taking the plunge

In many ways, Keira understands what it feels like to be thrown in the deep end of a learning experience and expected to swim quickly. She moved to Los Alamos eight years ago from Puerto Rico when her husband, Jonathan Marti-Arbona, got a job at the Lab. With her engineering degree in hand, she was ready for a job at the Lab, but the challenge of English — her second language — was holding her back.

Keira dove in to both her new career and learning English, and she has now settled into fluency, including the vocabulary and language complexities of nuclear facility management.

Keira's division supports the work of the Plutonium Facility, specifically the related hazardous waste facilities. Her group sits in a small building not far from the facility, where they support nuclear safety basis, configuration management and other regulations that ensure readiness and also keep facilities, equipment and people safe.

Keira was invited to mentor a student a couple months ago and was ready to help others learn the ropes in a way that was not only effective, but meaningful. When Keira joined the Lab, she was mentored by Randy Stringfield, who taught her not only how to do her job but also inspired her to love it.

"I'm here to help because I love my job," said Keira. "It's important to love your job to successfully transmit your knowledge to someone else."

Randy also mentored former student Megan Trujillo, a mechanical and aerospace engineer who has since joined the Lab. Today, Randy, Megan and Keira lead together as a team, so the students always have someone available. For Keira, working alongside Megan, who is now a professional nuclear facility engineer, is the best encouragement to keep doing what she's doing.

"I want our students to be inspired by Megan," said Keira. "You can come here as a student and become a nuclear facility engineer, just like Megan did! And more than anything, I want students to understand that we need them here."

From left: Megan Trujillo, Juan Reyes, Keira Arce, Randy Stringfield, Hannah Bishop and Roan Shawver at the Low-Level Waste Facility.

Get to the 'why' on day 1

One of Keira and her team's first approaches when their students first arrive to the Lab each June is to help them understand not only the larger security mission they'll support through their summer work, but the "why" behind all the little things, from following procedures to how they enter data. Keira communicates why all the regulations and compliance that her team supports are necessary for the nation so that students understand their day-to-day tasks are meaningful, even on the days they may feel mundane.

"We really want all employees to know that they don't have to be doing hands-on work inside the Plutonium Facility to fully be a part of the mission," said Keira. "We couldn't do what we do in PF-4 without many other support facilities and programs that create a foundation for that work."

How does she create this inspiration? For one, she starts by teaching her students the big picture beyond the Lab. Helping them understand that many of the rules and regulations they'll work to employ in the Lab's premier nuclear facility are ordered by the Department of Energy and other federal institutions helps students feel the importance and weight of their work.

"We also take our students on tours of our facilities as much as possible," said Keira. "And not just one tour on day one, but as often as something comes up that would make it helpful for them to put their hands on equipment or see a part in person, we try to get them in front of it. My management also empowers me and my team to give them a good experience, so will always make a way for things like this to happen."

That management, specifically Keira's division leader Derek Benavidez, refers to her as a "shining star."

"Keira's dedication to understanding the 'why' in what we do is essential to safer operations of our nuclear facilities here at the Lab," said Derek. "Fostering that attitude with our students will prepare them for whatever lies ahead. She takes mentoring students to heart and does everything in her power to make sure the students have a positive experience."

Keira, center and in blue, explains nuclear facility documents to co-workers and summer students.

Make it a win-win

Keira hopes all mentors across the Lab who worked with students this past summer and plan to in the future will remember that mentoring is not the same as being someone's manager or boss. She likes that she can guide someone in both their project list and the way they do their work without the added layer of being their formal manager. She also encourages women to step up as mentors to continue to ensure women's voices are part of leadership.

Her advice for mentors? Think through what your students are going to need far in advance and be ready for them. "What access do they need? What activities can they do while they're waiting for that access to be approved or are completing training? Give them something to focus on without overwhelming them and give it with context so they understand why they're doing it."

Above all, do it as a team, she noted. Keira and her team of co-mentors, former students and managers are all in it together when new students arrive because they know the outcome will benefit them across the board.

"I'm so glad I can be a tool to help others. I have a lot of people behind me," Keira said.