Creating community

Materials scientist and aerobics instructor Rajendra Vaidya thrives in what he calls his “global public square.”

By Octavio Ramos | March 19, 2020

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Vaidya teaches a class at The Family YMCA. Los Alamos National Laboratory

Beat-driven dance music fills a room at The Family YMCA in downtown Los Alamos. About 15 people dressed in workout clothes stroll in, each taking his or her place before a raised platform known as step.

Leading the class is certified step-aerobics instructor Rajendra Vaidya of the Lab’s Strategic Development Office. Vaidya takes the students through a warm-up, explaining and demonstrating each move with ease. Once the warm-up is finished, Vaidya launches into an intense routine designed to boost heart rate, challenge breathing, and strengthen the body’s muscles.

“I’ve been teaching these classes for about 27 years,” Vaidya says. “I’m trying to remember how many people have participated in these classes over the years, but I do know I've taught more than 4,000 step classes to date.”

What keeps Vaidya going in such a challenging role that demands both physical stamina and the ability to motivate? For Vaidya, it comes down to his students. “Teaching these classes has been very rewarding,” Vaidya notes. “I love to interact with so many different types of people, each of whom brings varying viewpoints and opinions that stimulate my intellectual curiosity. I’ve worked hard to make my classes feel more like fun social clubs.”

Tackling Strategic Development

After earning a doctorate in materials science and engineering, Vaidya joined Los Alamos as a postdoc in 1992. He then joined the Materials Science and Technology Division, where he worked as a staff member and a team leader. For 15 years he also worked as a group leader for various other organizations. Vaidya then joined the Strategic Development Office at the Laboratory’s Plutonium Facility.

“I currently serve as a technical project manager working on process-improvement activities,” Vaidya explains. “I also help prepare the next generation of engineers and scientists to improve upon current process knowledge so the Laboratory can more easily meet deliverables for the national security mission.”

As Vaidya explains it, process improvement consists of using science and engineering to improve current processes at the Plutonium Facility. “One example is designing a nondestructive methodology to perform real-time corrosion monitoring of nuclear material storage containers. The goal is to identify defects before they can compromise safety so we do not waste time and money.”

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Vaidya inspects a modular integrated nondestructive test setup used to interrogate nuclear material storage containers at the Lab’s Plutonium Facility.

To help the next generation of engineers and scientists at the Plutonium Facility, Vaidya is leading an effort to create an industrial engineering capability. “We’ve never had such a capability, and I believe it’s crucial as the Lab ramps up pit production,” explains Vaidya, referencing the Lab’s mission to start delivering a minimum of 30 plutonium pits (the cores of nuclear weapons) per year by 2026. “These pits must be flawless to ensure the national security mission of the United States.”

It's More Than Just Aerobics

Vaidya fell into aerobics quite by accident. “I played badminton while in graduate school,” he says. “One day, an aerobics instructor came up to me and explained they needed a male instructor to teach classes as part of a study to determine if an instructor’s gender influenced class size and participation. I agreed to try it out and learned the routines.”

Once Vaidya started teaching, he found that he really enjoyed it. “I never did find out that study’s results,” he says with a laugh. “I just started teaching, really liked it, and eventually became certified. I haven’t stopped since.”

Vaidya teaches aerobics four times a week. He holds a morning class on Sunday, evening classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and a lunchtime class on Wednesdays.

"I treat each class as a ‘global public square,’ the reason being that while we’re exercising we touch upon a variety of topics, from facets of the Laboratory’s culture and community life to entertainment news and sometimes even politics.” —Rajendra Vaidya

“I don’t look at my classes as just exercise classes,” Vaidya says. “I treat each class as a ‘global public square,’ the reason being that while we’re exercising we touch upon a variety of topics, from facets of the Laboratory’s culture and community life to entertainment news and sometimes even politics.” Vaidya flashes a smile. “Well, not too much about politics, because it can be a little sensitive.”

For Vaidya, his knack for cultivating diverse interchanges in his aerobics classes has made it easier to interact with the many personalities and viewpoints at his job at the Lab.

“I really enjoy the diversity of people here at work,” Vaidya explains. “I joke about it, but I keep myself young by working with so many different personalities here. For example, the young scientists and engineers, they bring a certain energy and vitality to their jobs. It’s fascinating for me to participate in this global public square, one that continues to craft such an exciting and diverse scientific culture.”