Kelley Ruehl, an Energy Water Systems Integration mechanical engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, arrived in her current career by remaining open minded to new opportunities and following her passion for environmental research. Prior to joining Sandia as an intern in 2011, Kelley participated in a crime scene investigation summer camp, studied in a NASA undergraduate research program, and interned at Mercedes-Benz after sales during a study abroad program at the University of Stuttgart.
Kelley’s diverse background and experiences helped highlight her affinity for research and drove her desire to make a positive impact in her local and global community through innovative engineering research. After traveling abroad and experiencing renewable energy first-hand, Kelley pursued graduate studies to combine her love of the outdoors and research into a career in marine renewable energy.
Kelley is currently the lead on Sandia’s WEC-Sim (Wave Energy Converter SIMulator) project, an open-source software used to simulate wave energy converters. Kelley and her peers work to leverage the motion of ocean waves to produce clean energy. The energy generated by wave energy converters can be used for utility-scale power generation, powering desalination plants, and a wide-variety of mechanical and electrical power applications.
Kelley attended Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, in Terre Haute, Indiana, for her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and Oregon State for her graduate degree in mechanical engineering and ocean engineering.
Read more about Kelley’s career path into renewable energy, her work on WEC-Sim, and her advice for anyone pursuing a STEM career and those new to the STEM workforce.
What inspired you to work in STEM?
Well, I always had a passion for math and science. I always really enjoyed those subjects and I think I had a lot of mentors, particularly teachers and my parents, who encouraged me to go into STEM fields, specifically engineering.
In terms of finding my path, it was trial and error. When I was in high school, crime scene investigation (CSI) shows were all the rage. I thought, ‘maybe I want to be a crime scene investigator.’ So, I signed up for a summer camp and I really enjoyed it but then I realized that I may not be able to stomach cadavers and blood spatter analysis on a day-to-day basis.
The next summer I did another science program at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, called Operation Catapult. It’s a two- or three-week program where you do fun projects like design a Rube Goldberg device. The Operation Catapult summer program is what made me interested in attending Rose-Hulman for my undergrad.
I was also fortunate to go to a high school in Ohio that offered an Ohio State introduction to engineering class. I got to take that class when I was a junior and it really solidified my desire to study engineering.
What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?
I really like working on projects that are directly impactful to people—especially when the projects align with my passions. Even as a kid, I loved the outdoors and I was passionate about conservation. I was a member of the Lorax Club and I was really into recycling at a young age. So, a career in renewable energy was a natural draw to me.
I have the great fortune of being able to work on projects in the renewable energy field where I have a direct, positive impact on the community. I have supported the WEC-Sim (Wave Energy Converter SIMulator) project since I started at Sandia and I have been the project lead from the beginning. WEC-Sim recently won an R&D 100 award for cutting edge innovation and for its adoption by academia and industry. It’s awesome to know people all over the world are using the software to better understand how devices convert the motion of waves into usable energy. I love to see that direct impact.
Over the last year and a half, I’ve also had the opportunity to work on TEAMER (Testing and Expertise for Marine EneRgy) partnership projects with industry to help model their wave energy converter designs using WEC-Sim. There is so much tech transfer in the teaming process and I truly enjoy teaching others how to do things we do at Sandia. Personally, I love seeing the direct impact our team has in a field I am so passionate about.
How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
That's a great question and it’s something I think about a lot. There is no one answer to this question—it's like a full court press.
Personally, I'm in a position where I can participate in recruitment and be part of the hiring committee for positions. I actively seek out opportunities to build diverse teams and to mentor people, especially underrepresented groups.
Teaming is such an important part of creating an inclusive work environment. It's important to go above and beyond, to make sure that people feel valued as an individual and that their voices are heard. We need to recognize that people have different ways of communicating and it's important we give them an opportunity to integrate into a high-performing team, to support them and enable their success.
I think having role models is another huge asset. Everyone needs someone to look up to and everyone deserves to be represented. When I first started in my career at Sandia, I really didn’t understand how valuable mentorship could be, especially having female mentors. At the time, I didn't think mentorship was important, but my perspective really shifted. Now I’m drawn to successful women who can be mentors. I like picking their brain and asking, ‘how did you get here?’, ‘what did you do?’, ‘what worked and how did you make these decisions?’. For me, seeking mentorship wasn’t originally a conscious effort but it’s now one I consciously pursue.
I also think it’s necessary to have uncomfortable conversations with majority groups. I have found myself in situations where I didn't appreciate the way things were handled and I saw that as an opportunity to initiate a conversation about the importance of inclusive activities. It’s important everyone participate with good faith to avoid being performative. In the big picture, having a conversation with someone is a teaching opportunity to move forward into a better place together and to make sure everyone is welcome and represented.
Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
I would say reach out to people who are working in that field. Ask questions about what path they took and why— ask about their process step-by-step. Ask them what hard decisions they had to make and how they made them. For me, a big moment was deciding whether to pursue a PhD. I talked to people about how they made similar decisions and it helped me so much. It doesn’t mean you have to make the same decision, but it’s certainly educational to get their perspective and learn from their experience.
I think it is also helpful to ask for support and to find people to advocate for you. It’s such an interesting thing to apply for jobs or internships in a digital world, so never overlook an opportunity to have a personal connection—it can go a long way.
I would also suggest trying new things. Before I settled on my line of work, I sought out a lot of diverse opportunities and tested them out before I got a sense of what really fit for me. If you have an interest in something, go find a summer program or an internship and give it a try. You could be like me and really enjoy CSI as a summer program but realize it’s not a career path! Even pursuing a volunteer opportunity is a great chance to get your feet wet and get a sense of whether you enjoy it or not.
When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
My dog! I love going on hikes and runs with my dog. I really enjoy camping, running, backpacking, and just being outdoors—New Mexico is great for me in that respect. I also love getting together with friends and family when there’s not a global pandemic!
Learn more about our programs & resources for women and girls in STEM at energy.gov/WomenInSTEM