At the forefront of national security: Q&A with Michelle Stevens ’97

For over 15 years, Michelle Stevens ’97 has made significant contributions to multiple mission areas at Sandia National Laboratories. She currently serves as the director for the Weapons Design and Assurance Center, which delivers consistent, high-quality components for applications that support the U.S. National Security Mission.


In previous roles at Sandia, Stevens was responsible for the governance of our nuclear weapons programs and provided independent technical analyses to an executive team in support of well informed, risk-based decisions. She also led the Independent Surety Assessment group responsible for assessing the technical performance of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and modernization programs. Prior to that, she supported Sandia’s role in NNSA’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative which was focused on securing potentially vulnerable radiological and nuclear material from theft or misuse.

Prior to Sandia, Stevens spent six years as a product development engineer at Ford Motor Company where she was responsible for component designs ranging from rear suspensions in Super Duty trucks to the body and trim of the Ford Focus and Mustang.

Stevens earned her B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University and later earned her M.S. degree in systems engineering and management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

When you were looking at colleges, what interested you in Cornell University and, in particular, Cornell Engineering?

To be honest, Cornell wasn’t on my radar because I thought it was too big. I thought I wanted to go to Princeton. As we were driving there for a visit from Ohio, my dad suggested we stop at Cornell since it was on our way, and I absolutely loved it. It has such a beautiful campus. I got a great vibe, so I applied early decision and was accepted. I was absolutely ecstatic the day I learned I was accepted.

Cornell has a great focus on academics and you can’t beat the ethos.

Can you tell us about your journey to this point in your career? What was your trajectory into your current position?

I started out in the automotive industry at Ford Motor Company. I was a MechE concentrating in biomechanics with Dr. Don Bartell, back in the day when he was an active professor at Cornell. I had a lot of fun as a mechanical engineer working for Ford Motor Company designing cars, playing on a test track conducting design evaluations for vehicles. But at the end of the day, while I'm glad that we have a profit industry for certain things, it just wasn't very motivating for me.

I went back to school and got my Master's in system design from MIT, learning how to engineer large-scale systems. After that, I interviewed with Sandia National Labs whose mission is “exceptional service in the national interest.” I felt very captivated by that. It has been part of Sandia’s DNA since the founding and it really motivates us as a laboratory, nonprofit organization, serving in the best interests of the U.S. government. At Sandia, I moved through a number of different rotations relatively quickly and ultimately moved into management. Partly because that was my training and partly because that’s what I gravitate towards. I was working with multidisciplinary engineering teams, spending some time securing radiological and nuclear materials both domestically and internationally, then went over to our nuclear weapons work. From a nuclear weapons perspective, what we do is increase the security and safety of our nuclear weapons so that they always work when we expect them to and never operable in any other scenario. I found myself energetically able to get behind making our weapons more secure and safer. There has also been a big push for modernization of the stockpile of which I have been involved in for the past several years. I have also done some other work to make sure I understand the world around us and the drivers for a nuclear deterrence. I'm currently in a director role, where I'm responsible for delivering what we call non-nuclear components for our nuclear weapons, again, making them more safe and more secure.

I would say my time in industry really helped me understand the difference between the ways corporate America provides a very vital role, and then the unique role that we play at the national labs. We are what’s called an FFRDC, a federally-funded research and development center which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing the nation with premier science and engineering for national security and technology innovation. I find that aspect very compelling and fulfilling.

Please share with us some of the research (non-classified) you are currently involved in at Sandia National Labs.

What's fascinating is most of the projects engineers work on in industry are devices that provide real-time data and feedback from being used. Automobiles, for example, are operational, so you get real-time operational feedback. Nuclear weapons, on the other hand, provide a very unique challenge. Weapons are fielded for extended periods of time and you must validate the safety, security and reliability of these systems for decades, even though they are in a dormant state. That's very fascinating from an engineering perspective; building in confidence in performance over decades, without the more traditional feedback loops that you get in most engineering industries.

What are you looking for when you are recruiting new talent? What insights can you give current Cornell Engineering students?

What we look for is technical excellence, which is part of what Cornell provides. Students who come out of Cornell are exceptional on the technical front. And along with the technical skills is also that curiosity, and that sense of being able to tackle open ended, ambiguous problems. Cornell Engineering doesn’t do test sets that are from the book, and that helps to build students who are able to think critically for themselves and to apply concepts in new domains and new areas. What's also important is all the team projects that are done at Cornell are outstanding preparation for real world. Everything we do is team based; there's almost nothing that gets done by one or two people at the labs as we are tackling very challenging problems. And the ability to function with other engineers in different domains is incredibly important, because very few problems that we solve are strictly mechanical, electrical, or computer science. Additionally, we look for people with the right mindset – people who are great team players, are motivated by tough challenges, and are motivated by service in the national interest.

What insights can you give current engineering students to prepare themselves for the next step?

One of the things that we're noticing is sometimes students are trained to get the right answer. And if they don't have the right answer, then they failed, right? What we need is to have a workforce that is willing to put their designs out there and find out what's wrong with them; put them up under critical review and not feel like they are personally being judged for their capability. It's about getting the design right, not actually being right. That ability to be resilient in the face of your design not being perfect in early stages is what we really need. If you're going to work on cutting edge things or pushing boundaries, you're going to get it wrong sometimes; invite critical thinkers to come and critique your design to ensure it’s the best solution we can offer to the nation.

What makes you proud to be a Cornell alumnus?

Cornell taught me critical thinking and perseverance. Cornell also taught me how to operate with humility and be more comfortable in ambiguity. I'm very thankful for those lessons.