Department of Energy

Sandia materials scientist looks to inspire students through STEM program

July 6, 2018

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Editor's Note: This is cross-posted from Sandia National Laboratories' website.

For 32 years, Sandia National Laboratories’ Black Leadership Committee has brought science, technology, engineering and math to more than 3,000 middle and high school students through the Hands-On, Minds-On Technologies program.

HMTech began as an after-school program to inspire African-American students to pursue STEM careers. Ten years later, it became a Sandia-sponsored summer program open to all sixth- through 12th-grade students, although its primary target is African-American students.

More than 100 students participated in this year’s program, attending four six-hour Saturday sessions. Each day’s classes were broken into three, two-hour blocks of instruction and hands-on learning. Students chose classes based on their grade level in such subjects as anatomy, physics, chemistry, fractals, video game programming, coding, renewable energy, website design using HTML and CSS and robotics. Personal development classes, including money management and career planning, were also offered.

Sandia National Laboratories materials scientist Olivia Underwood hopes to inspire others through Sandia’s HMTech program.
Underwood, a postdoctoral research associate turned team lead, was the first African-American to receive a doctorate in materials science from the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Photo by Stephanie Blackwell

For Sandia materials scientist Olivia Underwood, volunteering with HMTech has been one way to make a difference in the community. This is her second year working with the program and her first year as an instructor. In her class — “What is Materials Science?” — students learned how to identify categories of materials, such as metals, ceramics, composites, polymers and semiconductors, by disassembling items like a scooter, waffle maker, handheld mixer and electric stovetop.

The students also made replicas of the atomic structure of crystals using Styrofoam balls and toothpicks to better understand the concepts of crystal structure, atomic packing and stacking sequence. And, they made slime to observe the behavior of an amorphous solid.

To understand mechanical properties, Underwood had the students use gummy worms, frozen-pop sticks, paper clips, ceramic tiles and rubber bands to illustrate the elastic and plastic regions on the stress-versus-strain curve and to characterize each material failure as ductile or brittle. The stress and strain curve provides engineers and designers a graphical measure of the strength and elasticity of a material, and allows them to predict the behavior of materials used in a given application.

“It’s important to give back to the community, to show these kids that there are other people who look like them doing great things and they can do them too. Exposure is key to their success,” said Underwood, who began her career at Sandia in 2015 as a materials mechanics postdoctoral research associate, and now serves as a product realization team lead.

Sandia National Laboratories materials scientist Olivia Underwood helps students disassemble a scooter during her materials science class. This is the first year she has served as a HMTech instructor
Sandia National Laboratories materials scientist Olivia Underwood helps students disassemble a scooter during her materials science class. This is the first year she has served as a HMTech instructor
Photo courtesy of Olivia Underwood

Underwood grew up the youngest of seven children in Brent, Alabama. In school, she was told she’d make a great engineer or scientist because she excelled in math and science. She remembers spending hours taking apart and analyzing items as a child, and knew she wanted to be an engineer or a scientist.

“What my parents wanted was for their children to be better than them,” said Underwood. “My parents only have a ninth-grade education, but they have Ph.D.s in life lessons. They made sure I was prepared for it.”

She learned from her siblings to never let her age, size or gender keep her from doing what she wanted to, and refused to be told she couldn’t do something. “Never allow others to place their limits on you.”

Underwood earned her bachelors and masters in metallurgical engineering from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. She had several internships, including one at Los Alamos National Laboratory. She also worked as a failure analyst engineer with CGI Federal Defense at Red Stone Arsenal, home to the U.S. Army’s Aviation and Missile Research Development Center. She later completed research work at the Center for Nanophase Materials Science at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

She enrolled at the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 2010, where she was soon met with a challenge because she was the only African-American in her classes initially.

While the coursework was not difficult, she grew tired of fighting to prove herself, she said. She lost more than 10 pounds her first semester.

“I constantly had to remind myself that I was not built to be broken and I was not going to leave without my Ph.D. As a black woman, it’s easy for someone to tell you what you can’t do, but no one is going to tell me what I can’t do,” she said.

In 2015, she became the first African-American at the University of Alabama in Huntsville to earn a doctorate in materials science.

“It’s never easy to be the first one to do anything, but it’s always worth it when you are able to see others cross the finish line after you,” said Underwood. “I will continue to blaze those trails and remove those glass ceilings.”

Underwood knows African-Americans are underrepresented in math and science fields. To address the issue, she established the Dr. Olivia D. Underwood Scholarship at her alma mater, Bibb County High School, to further the recipient’s advancement in STEM.

In addition to volunteering with HMTech, Underwood also serves as outreach co-chair of the Sandia Women’s Action Network. In her role, she works to “engage members of Sandia’s workface and the local community to support activities for local youth in math, science and engineering, and promotes opportunities to improve visibility of women in science and act as a force for good in our local community.”

Underwood said she hopes her work with HMTech will show students that they are capable of anything. “Change starts with me, and I do that when I lead by example. It’s important to give back and show our youth that they can do it too because they are our future.”