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One on One with James Peery

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For a guy who’s into parallel computing, nuclear engineering and arbitrary Lagrangian-Eulerian algorithms, James Peery’s work life began in an extremely modest way.

“This is something people probably don’t know about me,” Peery says. “I was a short-order cook at the age of 15. I started off as a busboy, and knew I didn’t want to do that job, so I came in on my own time and learned all the 115 different items that they offered on the menu. Lo and behold, the cook quit, and I got my opportunity.”

Peery, 58, took over as director of Sandia National Laboratories on Jan. 1. It’s his third stint at Sandia, with a work history that also includes Los Alamos and Oak Ridge national labs.

Peery is a nuclear engineer with a leadership background in high-performance computing and a heart that still belongs with the mathematics he studied throughout his academic career.

He says he never envisioned directing a national lab, but he got a crash course when the coronavirus hit, shortly after he arrived at Sandia to take over.

“So two months into the job, we’re telling everyone to go home,” Peery says. “None of us had been through a pandemic before, so we were all learning how this works. For three weeks, I didn’t sleep a lot. It feels second nature now.”

Sandia had long planned for a pandemic situation, with a blueprint put together by lab biologists and virologists in 2010.

Peery credits Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty, Department of Energy undersecretary, with setting priorities for which employees were essential and needed to stay on the job and which could work from home.

“It allowed me to talk to the workforce and say … ‘look, here’s what’s really important here. … We have a stockpile on alert right now. It needs a little care and feeding.'”

Despite the lab’s scrupulous COVID protocols, Peery was exposed to someone who tested positive last spring and had to undergo two tests to see if he had picked up the virus.

He had not, but it was not a fond experience for Peery.

“Oh my, God,” he recalls. “They stick that thing like that far up your sinus cavity … in your brain. It feels like … I was never very good at swimming . I mean I can swim, I wasn’t good at a race where they do the flips. Whenever I do the flips, I suck in all this water. That’s how you feel.”

Tell me about your love of mathematics.

“If I knew I could have made a career out of being a mathematician, I would have done it. And now I know I could have, so that’s one regret. I just assumed if you got a degree in math that you’re probably going to be teaching. I was really intrigued by physics as well, so I went into nuclear engineering. The greatest gift my parents ever gave me, they sent me to Strake Jesuit High School in Houston. They sacrificed greatly financially for me to go there … and I came out with such a solid foundation in math and science that I won’t say college was easy, but it was doable. So I continued to enjoy math to the extent that in graduate school a lot of my elective graduate classes were in math.”

You’ve had a long career at three national labs. What’s been your favorite work experience?

“This is the great thing about Sandia. They let you have many careers. The most fun job that I’ve had in my entire career was in a cyberresearch organization here at Sandia. And the reason it was so fun was the average age was 28, and every week they showed me something I would have said was impossible. That is no exaggeration, by the way.”

Can you give me an example?

“I can’t talk about any of it. There’s nothing there. I tell people my first 20 years I did either kind of the researchy end of technologies for nuclear weapons or right in the middle of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos programmatic issues and hydrodynamic testing (at the Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility). That was my second favorite job.”

Why?

“Because you get to blow things up in the middle of a wildlife reserve. To get out there, you have to drive 15 miles and go through herds of deer and elk. I never saw a bear, but there are bear out there. So you drive through that, and go and do a large high explosive experiment.”

How do you spend your free time?

“Well, for the longest time, most of my free time was living vicariously through my children’s sports events. Things that I’ve done in my past that I would like to return to if this job would allow it, I used to brew a lot of beer. I do a lot of do-it-yourself stuff. It seems like every time I start laying wood floors in a house, I change jobs and have to move. So the new owners get a nice new wood floor. I’ve done that in almost every house we’ve owned – various wood projects. I just got finished doing some very large planter boxes outside.”

What’s an example of good advice you’ve been given?

“I was very fortunate in 2001 to be selected to go through … a national security leadership development program. It was my first tour here (at Sandia). It impressed upon you that to be a really good leader, you have to be authentic and … vulnerable. And that was really an eye-opener for me because before that, it was like the way to get ahead was to out-compete everyone or outwork everyone. I learned really quickly that’s not the case. You’re certainly not going to be happy doing that.”

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

“One of the highlights of my career is … Wounded Warriors. I believe it was in 2012, maybe 2013, we were having what we call a fall leadership forum and (the speaker) was Rear Admiral Bud Langston, Ret. Bud (started) the Wounded Warrior Program at Oracle and came to talk to us about it. And what they were doing is going to Walter Reed and finding wounded warriors and offering them the opportunity to come work at Oracle. This is a life-changer for these wounded warriors who have done so much for our country. So I’m listening to this talk, and I’m thinking I just know our lab director is going to say, ‘We need to do a program like this,’ so I just interrupted and said, ‘I’ll do it.’ And the guy next to me, one of the most famous people in cyber, Jim Gosler, leaned over to me as a fellow at the laboratory and said, ‘James if you go find these individuals, I’ll mentor them in cyber.’ And we did that. Some of them have gone on to earn their degrees. Some have gone on to other jobs, but for the most part it’s been very successful. It’s one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.”

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