ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jill M. Hruby, a 32-year veteran of research and management at Sandia National Laboratories, will take the reins as lab president and director on July 17, making her the first woman to head a national security lab in the United States.
Her appointment was announced Monday morning at a news conference with outgoing Sandia director Paul Hommert and Rick Ambrose, chairman of the board for Sandia Corp., the Lockheed Martin subsidiary that operates the lab for the National Nuclear Security Administration.
Ambrose said Hruby brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to her new post.
“Jill has the right combination of technical expertise and strategic vision to lead Sandia into the future,” Ambrose said. “With more than three decades of experience at Sandia, she understands the core national security missions and scientific foundations that are fundamental to the labs’ success.”
Hommert announced in mid-May that he would retire this summer after serving as lab director since 2010. And, at Monday’s announcement, Hommert said Hruby’s leadership skills and insider knowledge of the lab will pave the way for a smooth transition.
“She’s been part of the executive team here for the last five years and she’s been involved in all the major discussions during a period of some turbulence,” Hommert said, referring to Sandia’s budget challenges in recent years as Congress haggled over the federal deficit. “She will bring her own energy and vision to take the lab forward.”
Hruby first joined Sandia in 1983 in California. She worked her way up the management chain, starting in 1989, and moved into senior management positions in 1997.
She came to Albuquerque when Hommert became lab director, serving as vice president of the Energy, Nonproliferation and High-Consequence Security Division, and as leader of Sandia’s International, Homeland and National Security Program Management.
As lab director, Hruby will oversee a 10,000-strong workforce and a $2.7 billion annual budget.
She has some big tasks ahead. Under Hommert, Sandia has participated in a major nuclear weapons modernization program representing one of the lab’s biggest endeavors since the end of the Cold War.
The program aims to upgrade three nuclear warheads to extend their life. That includes modernization of the air-launched B61 nuclear bomb, the W88 missile designed for submarine launch and the ground-launched Mk21 intercontinental cruise missile.
The B61 upgrade is now reaching some critical milestones. This summer, testing of integrated bomb units will begin, followed by systems testing in 2016 and 2017.
“For the first time, this summer, we’ll be testing a full-up unit,” Hommert told the Journal on Monday. “It’s part of the qualification process and it’s a very major milestone. … It’s part of the transition from an intensive development phase to an intensive qualification phase and we’re right on schedule.”
Hruby said pushing the modernization programs forward on time and on budget will be one of her top priorities. But she said the job has been made easier by Hommert’s accomplishments and by the federal government’s ongoing support.
“National budgets are difficult but, so far, Congress and this administration has been pretty committed to the life extension programs to the point where we’re now starting the testing and qualification of the B61,” Hruby said.
Cybersecurity will also be a priority under Hruby’s leadership. In particular, the lab will work with universities to build the trained labor force needed to strengthen the country’s cyber defenses.
“It’s a problem getting skilled people into the field,” Hruby said. “We need to look at new partnerships with universities and industry to develop the talent in new ways. We can’t just say we don’t have enough people — we need to work at it.”
Hruby said she’s also committed to technology transfer and will build on programs set up under Hommert to commercialize lab discoveries.
Under Hommert, the lab developed strong collaborative ties with the local business community and the University of New Mexico to develop new technology and spin it out into startup companies. Last fall, Hommert also announced plans to open a Center for Collaboration and Commercialization at the Sandia Science and Technology Park next to the lab.
“We recognize the need for a robust economy in Albuquerque and New Mexico, and anything we can do to help with technology transfer and working with others is very important,” Hruby said. “That will continue to be a huge priority.”
Hruby may have to lead Sandia Corp. and its parent, Lockheed Martin, through a new bidding process to continue running Sandia after next year. Lockheed’s contract at Sandia runs through April 2016, with a one-year extension option, and the contract after that could potentially be put out to bid.
Meanwhile, Hruby said she is honored and proud to be the first woman named to lead a national security lab.
“To be able to break the glass ceiling is a great thing,” she said.
Science and engineering are still by and large male-dominated fields, with women accounting for only about 20 percent of the workforce, Hruby said. At Sandia, women make up about 32 percent of the workforce.
But Sandia is working to create a diverse and inclusive environment.
“Sandia started creating that environment a long time ago,” Hruby said. “… In my wildest dreams I didn’t expect this to happen but, much to my surprise, here I am.”