Finding Livermore: Employees share their LLNL origin stories

Lars Borg, Sarah Sandholtz, Elaine Johnson (Download Image)

Growing up, geochemist Lars Borg, computational biochemist Sarah Sandholtz and Jupiter Laser Facility administrator Elaine Johnson (from left to right) never imagined a career at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Today, like their family members who preceded them, they are an integral of LLNL’s history. (Image: Carol Le/LLNL)


With more than 70 years of history and nearly 9,000 current employees, it is not uncommon for several generations of family members to have worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). For those employees with parents or grandparents preceding them, a career at the Laboratory was not in their original plans. In fact, before coming to LLNL, many do not realize the breadth of work that takes place here. But after experiencing Laboratory life for themselves, it is easy to see why so many people dedicate their careers to this unique place.

United by the moon

Richard Borg (third from left) and other moon researchers gather around gamma-ray equipment and lunar samples that have been prepared for testing.

When Lars Borg was a kid, he remembers someone asking him what he wanted to be when he grew up, to which he responded: “I don’t want to be a geologist or a chemist.” Decades later, Borg is ironically working as a geochemist — following in the footsteps of his mother, Iris Yvonne Borg, a geologist; and his father, Richard John Borg (1925–2006), a chemist.

Borg’s parents were an integral part of the Laboratory’s early history. Richard was one of the first employees hired in 1952, studying debris samples from the Nevada Test Site following some of the first nuclear tests Livermore conducted at the site. Following the Apollo 14 mission in 1971, Richard had the opportunity to study lunar samples to uncover the conditions in which the lunar materials originally formed. Around the same time, Iris also studied lunar samples but from the Apollo 12 mission.

Hired in 1962 as a consultant in the (then) Chemistry Department, Iris was one of the first five women to be employed at the Laboratory with a Ph.D. After a few years, she began working as a mineralogist for a program known as Plowshare — aimed at exploring the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Later in her career, she worked as an energy analyst focusing on sustainability and oil resources.

Iris Borg, a mineralogist for LLNL’s Plowshare Program.










Unlike his parents, who spent the better part of their careers at Livermore, Borg didn’t come to LLNL until later in his career in 2006. “Working at Livermore was never in the cards for me,” he said.

However, after leaving his professorship at the University of New Mexico, he was in pursuit of new research opportunities closer to home. With some of the most sophisticated analytical instruments available, LLNL was just the place. Today, Borg works in the Nuclear and Chemical Sciences division — the same, but renamed, division that his father once led — in an office that is no more than 100 feet from where his father’s office used to be.

Similar to some of his parents' research, Borg’s work is at the forefront of trying to understand the origin and evolution of the solar system. He refers to his cosmochemistry research as a “backwards-looking science.”

“We are measuring things as they are today to infer something about the past. In this sense, cosmochemistry and nuclear forensics are closely intertwined,” he said.

One fateful career fair

Despite knowing her grandfather, Willis “Sandy” Sandholtz (1922–2009), worked at LLNL from 1961 to 1986 as a chemical engineer, a career at Livermore was never on Sarah Sandholtz’s radar. It wasn’t until she came across an LLNL booth at Stanford’s career fair that she realized the Laboratory could be a good middle ground between industry and academia, providing her a mix of basic and applied research opportunities post-graduation. Sandholtz said: “This seemed like the best of both worlds.”

Sarah Sandholtz as a child (middle) next to her grandmother (left) and her grandfather, Willis “Sandy” Sandholtz (right).

In the early days of the Laboratory, Sandy worked in the Z Division, which was created to analyze radiological samples and monitor the nuclear capabilities of other countries. Sarah notes that he also was involved in energy discovery initiatives, involving the use of underground explosives to try to extract oil from shale, as well as an early laser fusion project.

Upon completing her Ph.D. at Sandholtz was hired at Livermore — in the summer of 2020, at the height of the pandemic — as a postdoctoral researcher. In 2021, She participated in LLNL’s annual Postdoc Research Slam and the Bay Area Research Slam, placing second at each for her drug discovery research and development of an automated, computational procedure for analyzing the patterns of binding in modeled SARS-CoV-2 proteins. She also was one of four LLNL postdocs selected to attend the 72nd annual Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting in 2023.

Following her postdoc position, Sandholtz became a staff scientist in 2023 and is continuing to work on several projects at the intersection of biology, chemistry, and computation for the Biosciences and Biotechnology Division. Her research includes identifying biomarkers for physical and cognitive human performance, assessing machine-learning pipelines for their potential to aid pathogen detection, and developing medical countermeasures to counteract the effects of compounds found in pesticides and chemical warfare agents. “I love that the research I am working on has a clear purpose and impact,” she said.

A secret place

Elaine Johnson and her father Jerry Johnson have, in combination, spent nearly seven decades at the Laboratory. Elaine started at LLNL almost two decades ago as an access control specialist. “Growing up, I knew my dad worked at the Laboratory, but it was like this secret job at a secret place,” she said.

Jerry was originally recruited in 1971 as a clerk typist, typing and composing layouts for documents and journal publications. Upon graduating high school in 1972, he was hired on full-time as a typist before eventually moving on to document production in the Z Division’s print plant. With more than 50 years of service at the Laboratory, Jerry has no intentions of retiring anytime soon. He is currently the division leader for Program Support in the Technical Information Department, where he oversees the various writers, editors, graphic designers and other communications support specialists that serve LLNL’s organizations and programs. 

Jerry Johnson working in the Z Division print plant in the early 1980s.

Once hired, the Laboratory was no longer a “secret place” to Elaine. She could now see firsthand how important of a place it was and had a great sense of pride for the work she was doing. In her first role as the Z Division’s access control specialist, Elaine hosted visitors from other national security agencies and granted facility access to Livermore employees — this included security clearance verification, badging procedures and providing a security rundown for all visitors. She said: “I essentially made sure everyone who was there, was supposed to be there.”

Today, Elaine is the administrator for the Jupiter Laser Facility (JLF) — which has the fifth-highest energy laser in the United States. In this role, she is still responsible for hosting visitors, this time for scientists who come to JLF to perform experiments. Recently, JLF completed a four-year long refurbishment to enhance its capabilities. “I enjoyed being involved in the JLF refurbishment process and am excited to contribute to the future of JLF,” she said.

Outside of their regular work duties, Elaine and Jerry have some hidden talents and passions up their sleeves — with Jerry teaching a well-attended fitness class at LLNL and Elaine being the go-to national anthem singer at Laboratory events.

LLNL is more than just a workplace: it is a place for people to be a part of something bigger than themselves, to build connections and to showcase their skills and passions. It is one big family through and through.

—Shelby Conn