Celebrating African American Heritage Month: Meet two mid-career LLNL employees

aahm (Download Image) Alex Ballard, a graphic design specialist, and Ibo Matthews, a physicist/deputy group leader, are two mid-career employees at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

In honor of African American Heritage Month, the African American Body of Laboratory Employees (ABLE) and the Office of Strategic Diversity and Inclusion Programs at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are spotlighting a few early and mid-career employees, specifically focused on the employees' educational background, work at the Lab, perspective on engaging under-represented groups in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and African American role models.



Alex Ballard

Job: Graphic design specialist

Educational background: Attended Chabot College and later transferred to the California College of the Arts, where in 2000, she received a bachelor’s degree in graphic design.

Ballard has worked at the Laboratory since 1985 as a graphic design specialist, creating visual communication. She currently works for the Technical Information Department within the Operations and Business Principal Directorate primarily supporting the Global Security Principal Directorate. "I came to the Laboratory because it offered a good opportunity in my field as well as opportunities for continuing my education," Ballard said. "What I love most about my job is creating something new and solving unique problems."

As a child, Ballard was inspired by her dad because of the life lessons he instilled upon her. "As the youngest of four and the last to leave home, my dad was not only my parent, but my best friend, confidant and mentor,"  Ballard said. "He valued, encouraged and challenged me to be my best self, teaching me to think critically and to look at life from all perspectives, not just from my comfortable seat. My father was an accomplished man that came from humble beginnings, something he never lost sight of. He taught me that being kind, honest and open-hearted was not a weakness."

Ballard is passionate about helping others and enjoys volunteering with local youth and senior groups. "I engage and communicate with an open mind and heart," she said. "Most of all, I always try to leave what I’ve touched a little better than when I found it."

To engage under-represented groups in STEM, Ballard says that it’s important to "Get out there, engage with the community and encourage those you work with to do the same. There is so much untapped talent and brilliance out there, but we have to be willing to go out and try something new."

Three words Ballard uses to describe herself are resourceful, creative and thoughtful. In her spare time she enjoys photography, reading and traveling to new places.

Favorite role model in African American history: "Shirley Chisholm was a great model of independence and honesty. While she championed several issues including civil rights, aid for the poor and women's rights, she was not only the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress, she was the first woman to run for the highest office in the land, president of the United States. She paved the way for both women and African American’s in politics."

Favorite quote: "I am, was, and always will be a catalyst for change."  - Shirley Chisholm



Ibo Matthews

Job: Physicist and deputy group leader

Educational background: Has a bachelor's degree in applied physics from the University of California, Davis and a doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Matthews joined the Laboratory in 2006 as a physicist in the Physical and Life Sciences Directorate. He now serves as the deputy group leader in the Target Science and Optical Materials Capabilities Group within the Materials Science Division, primarily matrixed to the NIF & Photon Sciences Directorate. "I was working at Bell Labs when my friend and mentor, Cherry Murray, who was then the deputy director for Science and Technology at LLNL, invited me for a visit," Matthews said. "I knew LLNL to be one of the premier national labs for materials physics and laser research, and found it to be the best choice for continuing my career." Matthews now leads a team of 10 to 12 staff scientists, is the principal investigator on multiple projects, develops models for laser-material interaction and processing, but still enjoys experimenting in the lab. "I like the flexibility the Lab offers to pursue research across a wide range of problems," he said. "There is always something interesting to study. The fact that I can find really interesting and fun science to work on while making an impact to the Lab’s mission is very exciting."

Matthews credits a combination of family and teachers for inspiring him to be where he is today. "I was never really pushed into higher education," Matthews said. "My parents encouraged my curiosity in science and technology, although they really just wanted me to be happy and independent. A turning point for me was in high school when I was coasting along and not doing my best, which prompted my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Hubbard, to come down really hard on me. His ‘do your best’ lecture to me left a big impression and forced me to take education more seriously. Other great teachers and colleagues along the way, especially my adviser, professor Millie Dresselhaus, also helped build me into the scientist I am today. Not only am I the first in my immediate family to graduate college with a bachelor’s or higher, I am one of only two Ph.D.s on either side of my extended family."

Matthews is proud to be an African American physicist and hopes to serve as a role model to others interested in pursuing a career in physics or other scientific disciplines. "I believe in leading by example. When others see you doing something, and they can relate to who you are, it can give them confidence in doing it themselves. I also try to show them what they have to offer to a particular problem, and how they can make an impact."

To engage more under-represented groups toward STEM, Matthews believes it's important to have more interaction with high school level students. "Currently the Lab mainly targets college and graduate level students who are closest to the job market, which is great for recruitment, however, I think many students at the high school level fall through the cracks and lack the encouragement that enthusiastic staff at national laboratories can potentially give. It’s important to reach them at a younger age, in order to influence the pipeline." 

Three words Matthews uses to describe himself are calm, curious and competitive. He enjoys spending time with his family, including his wife and two boys (especially in the outdoors), cooking, DIY projects and reading. He also is an avid collector of all forms of music.

Favorite role model in African American history: "Mae Jemison, the first African American female astronaut. She is one of many role models who defied the odds. Her bravery to go into uncharted territories took profound ambition to achieve, and yet she remained humble through it all. She defined herself, as she said, and did not let anyone else define her."

Favorite quote: "Never be limited by other people’s limited imagination" - Mae Jemison