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Meet materials scientist and leader in NNSA’s Defense Programs, Dr. Kathleen Alexander

Kathleen Alexander is the Assistant Deputy Administrator for Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation in NNSA’s Office of Defense Programs. She previously held posts at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

You’re a materials scientist. What about that subject interested you?

When I was in high school in Pittsburgh I was looking at different disciplines to pursue in college, primarily engineering. I had talked to a local (materials science) society, ASM International, and won a college fellowship. When I began studying materials science, I liked the crosscutting nature of the discipline. It touched on physics, engineering, math, and had broad applications to real-world problems. Look around you – materials are everywhere.

You have a long title. Just what is your job?

I oversee the portfolio in NNSA Defense Programs that has to do with experimental and computational sciences. Our NNSA facilities conduct experiments and tests, and we perform analysis and evaluation of those tests for stockpile stewardship. We are the core research, development, test and evaluation program that develops and validates these tools, which often are computer-based models and simulations. We also validate the computer models that go into these tools and validate how well the computer simulations perform compared to reality. We have a variety of experimental facilities that validate those simulations in appropriate conditions, which often involve extremes of pressure, temperature, strain rate, etc.

In the future, what will be the main science drivers in certifying the stockpile?

Primarily, they’re questions related to materials aging, safety and security. The bottom line is we’re regularly assuring the safety, security and reliability of the stockpile.

What areas most need new researchers and scientists?

I mentioned materials aging, so obviously materials scientists, but also computational scientists. Distinct from that are computer scientists, in terms of ensuring that the high-performance computing hardware is appropriate for the kinds of codes we need to run. The technology of available computing hardware is evolving. Other key disciplines include high energy density physics, statistics, nuclear physics – it runs the gamut. We cross all disciplines.

Where do programs like the DOE NNSA Stewardship Science Graduate Fellowship fit into this?

They’re key to the pipeline of researchers the program requires. These programs encourage developing the next generation of stockpile stewards. We train leaders in areas relevant to stockpile stewardship – high energy density physics, nuclear science, materials in extremes, hydrodynamics – and not necessarily on our problems per se. Fellows also get exposure to our national labs through a 12-week practicum, so they get to see the important work that’s done, and they get to visit the NNSA national laboratories.

What’s your advice for graduate students who are interested in stewardship science careers?

I always encourage people to ask questions – that’s the best way to learn – but also to work across disciplines. Our problems are crosscutting and learning to work across disciplines is very important. I think that’s what also keeps our technical staff honed and fresh.

You’re involved in efforts to cut across departments and disciplines. What motivates that?

Some of it is my background in materials science, which crosscuts physics and engineering. Another element is that the nature of challenges we have for stockpile stewardship is cross-disciplinary. The cross-disciplinary focus I have stems from both those factors.

You’ve also studied the future of national laboratory facilities and infrastructure. What changes do you see ahead for them?

I think a renewed understanding of the role of Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs). Our national labs are FFRDCs. It’s important to the nation that we maintain laboratory capabilities for the long term. I also see more discussions across agencies, especially since budgets are constrained, on how to best utilize the capabilities of all the national security laboratories.

You were a lab researcher and manager for 24 years. How do feel about no longer working at a lab or doing research?

Being a laboratory researcher and manager has been my identity for a long time, but I think it’s important to have federal staff who understand the labs and understand how they really work. I tell people it takes a village to do the science we do and that involves having scientists in federal positions as well. I spent half of those years in a (DOE) Office of Science lab coordinating on crosscutting programs with federal staff

A version of this Q&A appeared in the 2015/2016 edition of Stewardship Science, the annual magazine of NNSA’s Stewardship Science Graduate Fellowship. For more information or to apply for the fellowship, visit online