Takeira “TK” Benoit, spent her childhood in Baton Rouge, Louisiana finding out how things worked by her father’s side. For as long as she can remember, she loved math, science, and trying to understand the world around her. Now, she is a nuclear safety engineer with NNSA who helps to ensure the safe design, construction, and operation of both nuclear and non-nuclear facilities. This week she is speaking at the Black History Month celebration at West Texas A&M.
TK credits her parents’ commitment and sacrifice to education, her experience at Southern University and A&M College, a Historically Black College (HBCU), and the innumerous concealed contributions of the trailblazers who came before her, for playing a role in her success as a Black female engineer.
What is your current role at NNSA and how did you end up here?
I am a Nuclear Safety Engineer for NNSA’s Office of Safety, Infrastructure and Operations with the Office of Nuclear Safety Services. I provide services to the Nuclear Security Enterprise by reviewing and analyzing the safety aspects in the design, construction, and operation of nuclear and high-hazard, non-nuclear facilities. Prior to joining the Office of Nuclear Safety Services, I worked at the NNSA Production Office’s Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas as a Facility Representative providing field engineering and day-to-day oversight of the nuclear explosives’ assembly and disassembly facilities. However, I started my career with NNSA as a “Future Leader” in 2007; as a Nuclear Safety Engineer for Safety Basis Authorizations at Pantex. I’ve also worked as a Weapons Quality Assurance Engineer responsible for providing technical line management quality support and direction.
Where did you go to school? How did that decision impact you personally and professionally?
In 2007, I received my Bachelor of Science in Electronics Engineering from Southern University and A&M College, an HBCU. Attending an HBCU was a family legacy, as my mother and siblings all attended Southern. Not only would I continue this legacy, but I would also forge my own path in the College of Engineering. Overall, this decision enabled me to be my authentic self as a young Black woman. I was surrounded my minority professors, Black history, and culture. My time at Southern prepared me for mainstream America and my professors unfiltered truths equipped me for the challenges I would face as a woman in a male dominated career field. My HBCU experience is more than a legacy, it is my history.
In 2020, I earned my Master of Science in Industrial Engineering with an emphasis in Systems and Engineering Management from the University of Tennessee. The decision to pursue a graduate degree was a strategic professional decision that allowed me to grow personally. Obtaining my Master of Science enhanced my ability to evaluate and identify multi-faceted systems to achieve strategic organizational goals impacting national security.
What and/or who inspired you to pursue a career in engineering?
As the third daughter of a factory worker and educator, my parents’ commitment and sacrifice to our education was pivotal to my success. As a child, my father taught his children to be constructive, whether it was helping him build a shed or other DIY projects. He taught us to always try to find out how things work. I have always had a passion for math and science. This, coupled with my curiosity and need to understand the world around me, made engineering a natural choice. Pursuing engineering has allowed me to live out my childhood dreams.
What is challenging about your field?
The nuclear engineering industry is very challenging and includes rigorous qualification processes, rightfully so as our work is critical. There are times when I needed to exercise patience in digesting massive amounts of information in a short period of time for accurate safety qualification. I overcome these obstacles by maintaining a positive attitude, not allowing setbacks to discourage me, and by using all my resources. I continue to be persistent knowing that eventually I will get through the obstacle.
What has been an invaluable lesson learned?
Mentorship is imperative. I have had great mentors in my life, both personally and professionally. Seeking individuals who have different and diverse experiences and wisdom is so important for development. I encourage everyone, no matter your stage in life, to always have a mentor. We can all learn from someone else’s perspective.
What is your advice for those interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)?
To parents: Make math and science fun by frequently visiting your local Discovery Center or other facilities where children can interact with exhibits promoting STEM.
To students: Join your school robotics and math clubs and participate in opportunities like the National Science Bowl Competition hosted by the Department of Energy (DOE).
It is never too early to start engaging kids in STEM. Not only does STEM play an important role in the continued growth and stability of the United States, but STEM education also creates critical thinkers, increases science literacy, and enables the next generation of innovators.
You were recently recognized at a West Texas A&M’s Black History Month event themed “be the change you wish to see” – what does that saying mean to you?
We are not who we were last year, last week, yesterday, or even a minute ago. Change is the very nature of existence. It’s our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, ideas. Each day is a new day and opportunity for new ideas. Black History Month and the International Day of Women and Girls in Science serve as opportunities to educate and reflect on the important contributions many have made for the betterment of this nation. We reflect on the change they wanted to see and how we can be that change. Personally, I would like to see more women like me in leadership positions across the Nuclear Security Enterprise, including myself someday!
What kind of impact does diversity and inclusion in STEM have?
Diverse representation is critical as we move to resolve new problems and an uncertain future. Every individual brings a diverse set of experiences and perspectives; when leveraged to achieve organizational goals, diversity makes room for innovation. From the custodial worker to the nuclear engineer, we all matter! Diversity is greater than race, and when we value diversity, we create a culture of employees who are committed to the mission.
What is your favorite aspect about your job?
I love waking up knowing that I am serving my country and helping to ensure the safety of the American people. Every day is a new adventure in the life of an engineer; the excitement keeps me passionate, intrigued, and committed to my job and team.
TK volunteers locally with community development programs for the underserved and believes it is her higher calling to give back, encourage, and inspire the hearts and minds of others to overcome adversity and make their dreams come true.
We celebrate her, and the innumerous contributions of those whose journey was concealed but were critical to America’s successes and achievements. Trailblazers such as Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dr. Mae Jemison are the reason TK and so many of her colleagues are at NNSA and in STEM. As we take a step into the future, remember the words of Maya Angelou: “A person is the product of their dreams. So make sure to dream great dreams. And then try to live your dream.”