Making a difference: From interns to LLNL employees

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From left to right: Jonathan Toledo, Mariah Martinez, Paige Jones and Zhi Liao. All four employees started their careers at LLNL as interns. Learn about their journeys and diverse projects at the Lab.  

At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), many employees kick off their careers by first pursuing internships or research opportunities that provide insight into what careers they might want to pursue one day. Why intern at LLNL? LLNL’s experienced mentors, collaborative culture and robust resources provide students with purposeful experiences and projects with real-world impacts.  

For Lab employees Jonathan Toledo, Mariah Martinez, Paige Jones and Zhi Liao, their journeys to the Lab started with an internship. They have continued their work as full-time employees, paving the way for others to make a difference at the Lab. Learn more about these LLNL employees and why they chose LLNL as the best place to work in their fields.

Dynamic duo introduces students to STEM fields

From left to right: Mariah Martinez and Paige Jones are former interns who are now involved with the Lab’s Academic Engagement Office’s outreach efforts to introduce students to STEM fields. Photo credit: Blaise Douros/LLNL.

Mariah Martinez and Paige Jones are no strangers to answering the call when the Lab participates in STEM outreach events. Both are software developers who started as interns in the Livermore Information Technology (LivIT) Department under the Office of the Chief Information Officer at the Lab. Their responsibilities entail working on enterprise application software, particularly improving asset management for Lab internal stakeholders. Their focus is on the development, integration and enhancement of business applications, which means they get to assist in the creation, improvement and standardization of business processes and controls at the Laboratory.

Martinez and Jones also passionate about introducing students to STEM fields, particularly marginalized groups who have limited exposure to STEM careers. This dynamic duo has exemplified what it means to be a leader in STEM while giving back to their communities.

Martinez’s first internship at the Lab began in 2016 when she was studying computer science at Las Positas Community College. Her second internship in 2017 while studying at California State University, East Bay allowed her to transition to a full-time role within LivIT. At the Lab, Martinez works on several projects. One project she is proud of is introducing the Abbreviated Code Repository of Notation Yield Management System (ACRONYMS) application to Lab employees.

“We don't realize here at the Laboratory how often we use acronyms until a student points out that every other word was an acronym and we're trying to explain to them what those acronyms mean and what that sentence was actually talking about,” she said. “We [the LivIT group] went ahead and made ourselves a little ACRONYMS application for our group. It kind of got around that there's an acronym application that was out. And so other groups showed an interest in wanting to use it and wanting to share their acronyms. It grew from there and became kind of this crowdsource acronyms application that we now have available to everyone here at the Laboratory to use.”

Jones’ year and a half internship at the Lab began in early 2021 while she was studying computer information systems at California State University, Chico. Upon graduating in mid-2022, her internship led her to full-time employment at the Lab. Jones currently works on location and mobile data automation; one of the applications she works on is AtHoc.

“AtHoc is the Lab’s emergency notification system, so that's something that was utilized a lot throughout the pandemic and with the recent weather changes. We also use it for site closures or notifications such as a tree falling on campus,” Jones said. She is responsible for handling the software that sends out notifications to Lab personnel via phone, email or desktop. “What I enjoy about my role is that our team creates a lot of services and applications that allow other groups to perform the work they need to do across the Lab. As a result, we get to learn about those different jobs and groups without having to be entirely involved but still provide support.”

At the Lab, Martinez and Jones have participated in several STEM-centric outreach efforts. When Jones joined LivIT, she and Martinez shared an interest in getting involved with Girls Who Code, an international nonprofit organization that aims to support and increase the number of women in computer science. To their surprise, their LivIT group supported their efforts as soon as they expressed interest in STEM outreach. Being involved with organizations like Girls Who Code is what keeps this dynamic duo excited about creating future STEM leaders.

“We’re very passionate about being involved and luckily we both have that same passion – that same excitement and creative juices keeps us exploring amazing ideas that turn into fun lesson plans for students,” Martinez.said. “Sharing our knowledge gives us a chance to go back and feel that excitement we felt when we first started programming,” added Jones. “When we work with students, we tend to build these little interactive games with them. It teaches them very basic coding concepts, but it also provides them with a visual aspect where they can be creative and design what they want their game to look like.”

Martinez and Jones also are involved with the Laboratory’s Science Accelerating Girls’ Engagement (SAGE) summer camp. SAGE aims to broaden gender diversity in STEM fields by fostering creativity and innovation for continued scientific and technological leadership. Martinez and Jones recently joined more than 60 LLNL volunteers for this year’s summer camp.

“When it comes to STEM education at the Lab, we are involved with SAGE. Our main goal is to show students what the day-to-day life of a software developer is like,” Jones said. “We also wanted to show SAGE participants that our roles can be a lot of fun, very engaging and collaborative.”

“We both felt that our internship really provided us a great place to start and a lot of knowledge – we want to forward that on to other individuals who are interested in possibly having a career in the same area that we do,”  Martinez said.

In a recent interview, both Martinez and Jones provided more information about their experience. Watch it here.

“We are constantly learning about our own jobs, but also about the different areas in the Laboratory and getting to meet new people every single day and writing software for those processes. Without our internship experiences, we wouldn’t enjoy the work, people and experiences we’ve had so far,” Jones said.

When asked about what advice they had for students interested in an LLNL internship, they both agreed.

“Are you willing to learn new things and are you willing to be challenged? If so, then start by applying. Everybody gets to work on something they enjoy and are very passionate about. That's something that we're blessed to have here at the Laboratory. Just apply.”

Behind the scenes: The force that keeps the Lab running

Jonathan Toledo, a former intern, works in the Lab’s supply chain management department. Photo credit: Blaise Douros/LLNL.

Like many institutions, supply chain management at the Lab is critical to keep the flow of goods, data and finances going.The Supply Chain Management (SCM) Department at the Lab oversees this, from the procurement of materials organizations request to the delivery of the product reaching its destination.

Jonathan Toledo, a technical release representative (TRR) reviewer at the Lab under SCM in the Operations & Business (O&B) Directorate, describes his role as one that ensures employees can do their daily tasks by ensuring what is being purchased falls within Lab standards.

“In simple terms, I make sure groups are purchasing everything within our policy. I ensure employees adhere to budget constraints and regulatory guidelines while making purchases for daily operations,” Toledo said.

As a TRR reviewer, Toledo enjoys all aspects of his role – from working with contracts and policy compliance to ensuring that employees abide by legal and ethical practices.

“My job allows me to talk to people. It allows me to interact with people from different departments and that’s something I didn’t know I would ever do with a business degree working in supply chain management. I get insight into what they’re doing around the Lab and also learn about the work they do through their purchases,” Toledo said. “I get to see how diverse the Lab is because I get to talk to engineers, scientists, operations, skilled tradespeople and more.”

Toledo’s journey to the Lab started with an introduction to LLNL by a former colleague and college friend. In 2016, Toledo’s friend saw that Toledo was finishing his undergraduate degree in business administration at Stanislaus State University and encouraged Toledo to apply to the Lab. Not knowing LLNL offered careers outside of STEM, he was skeptical.

“When I first heard my friend say that he was going to LLNL, I was like ‘Are you going to be a scientist now? You’re a business guy. What are you doing there?’” he said. “Little did I know that the Lab offered careers outside of STEM that aligned with my studies in business.”

Toledo began his internship with the Lab’s Operations Policy and Oversight group.

“At the time, I was tasked with a new project they were starting. I was surprised they had me do so much! From collecting data to building this project from start to finish, it was what led me to an internship extension,” Toledo said. His immersive experience led him to apply to higher level positions at the Lab and he was ultimately able to attain them due to his work ethic and support from mentors.

“I had several internships at the Lab before becoming a full-time employee,” he said. “My mentors encouraged me to keep applying to full-time roles. Even if I didn’t get them, they said that it would help me prepare for the application and interview processes. And they were right.” After undergoing three interview cycles for his first full-time role, Toledo was able to land a position within SCM and O&B.

Toledo shared he has experienced a sense of belonging at the Lab. “One of the very first questions my mentor asked me was, ‘hey, do you like basketball? There are several colleagues who like to play,’” he said. “And that’s how we ended up playing basketball every Wednesday. I wasn’t expecting that but am so happy my group was and continues to be so inviting.”

Most recently, Toledo participated in the Lab’s Educational Assistance Program, and was able to get his master’s in business analytics and graduate in 2020.

“Having the Lab fund my education and support me in my role really means a lot. I’m approaching my ten-year mark at the Lab and having a company help me further my career at the Lab has been instrumental in my professional career.”

While Toledo was introduced to LLNL by a friend, he encourages students to step out of their comfort zone and network.

“I didn’t think there was a business career in supply chain. But the Lab has shown me that there is,” he shared. “It doesn’t hurt to reach out to people and ask them about their jobs. The Lab is a place where people can grow, and I encourage students to apply to an internship here.”

Paving the way: Building a workforce development program

Zhi Liao, a former intern, is now in charge of building an employee workforce development program. Photo credit: Blaise Douros/LLNL.

For the last 22 years, Zhi Liao has been a laser physicist at the Lab’s National Ignition Facility and Photon Science directorate (NIF&PS). He has worked on a variety of laser systems that vary in size. His main role in the last 15 years was to study laser-induced optics damage; he and colleagues were responsible for building a computing model that can predict how optics in laser systems were going to get damaged. The capability was crucial to NIF’s performance as it provided projections on when NIF ran at different conditions and what it meant in terms of cost of running the facility and the ability for the Lab to sustain it.

While at NIF, Liao also was able to work on implementing and commissioning a new set of optics, fused silica debris. Optics are central to NIF’s work as the Lab develops, fabricates and evaluates new materials for advanced laser systems and the experiments conducted on them.  Working on such projects was impactful for Liao as it allowed the Lab to run NIF at much higher energy than previously operated.

Fast forward to today, Liao oversees building an employee workforce development program. Liao’s work extends to building a process where student internships are part of a workforce pipeline to full-time status. He also is committed to enhancing the employee experience at the Lab by nurturing current employees and equipping them with professional development. Creating a sense of belonging where employees can continue to thrive in their roles is an area Liao also is interested in building and fostering.

“Some of my fondest memories here started with a ‘lets go get lunch’ or ‘lets go play basketball’ and it’s those little interactions that can help employees build community here and seek mentorship if they need it,” he said.  

Liao’s exposure to working in diverse projects and working with others were due to three internships he had at LLNL. He began his intern journey at LLNL as an undergraduate student in 1994 while studying optical engineering at the University of Rochester in New York.

“In my sophomore year of college, I did a summer research project with one of my professors on optics. I think that’s what helped me stand out when applying to national labs,” Liao said. On how Liao decided to come to Livermore Lab, he said: “I wanted to visit California. Being from Florida and going to school in upstate New York, I really wanted to explore something different. So I made it my mission to get in.”

While doing his three internships at LLNL, Liao wasn’t sure he wanted to pursue a Ph.D.

“I wasn’t very good at building things and as a matter of fact, I probably broke more things than I built, but I found that I was good in analysis and modeling,” he said.

However, it was the opportunity to explore new challenges during his internships that solidified Liao’s interest to pursue a career in research.

“What attracted me to LLNL and getting a Ph.D. was noticing all the scientists and their ability to work on new and challenging problems using the knowledge they learned in school,” he said. “That was it. I was like, ‘that’s the job I want’ and for the first time, I was able to see a spectrum of jobs I was interested in at the Lab.” Liao interned at LLNL again in 1995 and 1996.

In 2001, Liao became a full-time employee and since then has worked with students and early career employees.

“I tell students when they come to NIF: you’re not just interning for a internship experience, we’re providing you with a spectrum of experiences. You will be learning to acclimate to our unique work environment, work with a team, build new skills, network, ask questions and so much more. It’s the same for early career employees.”

Today, Liao is determined to not only aid in recruiting the next generation of leaders in the Lab’s workforce but help provide an enriching experience for current employees.

When asked what advice he has for prospective interns, Liao said: “My advice for students is to come with open arms and an open mind. Take advantage of everything the Lab has to offer. Career exploration can be hard. It could be daunting. It could be challenging. But that’s what an internship is all about – to try new things and there is nothing like interning at LLNL.”

To learn more about current and former LLNL interns, watch this video. To read other articles in the Summer Student Series, see the links below:

At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, our employees are our greatest asset. LLNL continues to act on its commitment to foster strong values and a culture that embraces inclusion, diversity, equity and accountability (IDEA). Our Laboratory culture aims to allow everyone to feel like they belong and that their thoughts and ideas are valuable contributions to LLNL’s mission. IDEA at LLNL has proven to be vital in supporting the Laboratory's mission, driving innovation, groundbreaking research and discovery. We encourage students to explore our available student programs and apply