Portraits of J.C. Lazarte, Sharon Perez, Mark Jimenez and Manuel Cardoso.
November 6, 2023

Trailblazers: Alonzo W. Ashley Fellows pave the way for future scientists and engineers

Four engineers discuss their journeys to working at SLAC and counsel those following in their footsteps.

By Elise Overgaard

This summer, four college graduates joined the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory to get hands-on experience as part of the Alonzo W. Ashley Fellowship Program.

Al Ashley (1935-2019), a champion of diversity in science and engineering, mentored hundreds of up-and-coming scientists and engineers throughout his 31 years at the lab. The one-year fellowship program named in his honor aims to bridge education and experience for historically underrepresented groups. 

This year’s fellows – J.C. Lazarte, Sharon Perez,  Mark Jimenez and Manuel Cardoso – are engineering advanced RF sources, facilitating particle accelerator research, working on the Vera C. Rubin Observatory's LSST Camera and finding faster ways to process massive data sets. But these aren’t their only missions. 

The crew has tackled many family firsts – first to go to college, first to be an engineer, first to earn a prestigious fellowship – and they are proudly lighting the torches for those that follow. Their collective advice: Practice hard, keep going and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

The fellowship program is supported by the lab’s Committee for Outreach, Recruitment and Engagement (CORE) employee resource group, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion+ and Talent Acquisition offices, and administered and partly funded by Human Resources.

Click here to learn more about the fellowship program, and visit our Careers site to apply for current openings.

J.C. Lazarte
J.C. Lazarte. (Elise Overgaard/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

J.C. Lazarte

Hometown: Chimbote, Peru, then South Bay Area, California

Education: BS Mechanical Engineering, University of Southern California

Role at SLAC: Mechanical Engineer

Directorate: Fundamental Physics Directorate – Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology Division, Legacy Survey of Space and Time Camera

Fellowship projects:

I'm on the testing side of the LSST Camera project. And when we ship the camera to Chile, I'm also going with that camera. In the time that I'm here, I need to learn as much as I can about the camera so that when it gets to Chile it can be verified once again and actually work. The optics – the science part of that – is super exciting for me.

Favorite things about working at SLAC: 

Truth be told, it's Tuesdays and Thursdays, when we play soccer at lunch. It's a good break from all the work, and it's great for developing relationships as well. 

On the LSST project, it’s incredible to see the work and the data analysis being done firsthand. We have these control rooms where there's six big monitors, and they're all displaying different data with graphs going all over the place. That taps into my inner kid – I’m like, “wow, this is so cool!” I feel like I'm part of something out of this world. 

Whenever I’m working, I’m focused – the job is in front of me. But I always try to take a step back and realize the magnitude of what's actually being done there. That always kind of grounds me.

Path to SLAC: 

As a kid, I always used to watch the PBS Space Time videos and physics videos and lectures on YouTube. I had no idea what they were saying. It just seemed surreal that there was all this understanding of the world, and the deeper you got into it, the less of an understanding we have. 

Coming out of college I found myself at the crossroads where I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I was looking for jobs in the engineering field and I found this position. The mission aligned with me personally because in high school, I created a mentoring program. We had kids who had immigrated at 15 or 16 years old, and now you have Spanish speakers who are just put into classes, and they're just supposed to figure it out. Well, of course that's not going to translate well to good grades. I didn't think it was fair, so I reached out to them. And that’s why the fellowship resonates and motivates me to model my career in pursuit of Al Ashley's mentoring achievements.

Advice:

I didn't think I was going to college, and even in college I found myself asking, “do I belong here?”  It's battling that impostor syndrome that you never really shake off, you just kind of live with.

I'd say be persistent and ask questions. Sometimes you'll know much less than other people, or you'll end up asking the wrong questions. But a lot of times you end up asking the right questions. 

And be aware of external help. I didn't reach out to many resources mainly because I just didn't know or didn't think they would help. A lot of times you think you're on your own, but people want to help you. 

Sharon Perez
Sharon Perez. (Elise Overgaard/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

Sharon Perez

Hometown: Mountain View, CA

Education: BS, Mechanical Engineering, Stanford University 

Role at SLAC: Science and Engineering Associate

Directorate: Accelerator Directorate – FACET-II 

Fellowship projects:

I've been working on this project that we call “Camera Watchdog” for the Facility for Advanced Accelerator Experimental Tests or FACET, where SLAC develops new accelerator technologies. I wrote a program that continuously monitors FACET’s cameras, which monitor what's happening in the accelerator, and checks their status. If a camera becomes disconnected, the program tries to revive it. This takes away the need to have someone manually checking the cameras and rebooting them, which could be really tedious since there are almost 100 cameras. The program also keeps track of how many times a camera has been rebooted, and that information can be used to make decisions in the future. 

I also put together a tutorial for the summer interns – I helped them understand how to use MATLAB to create graphical user interfaces, to create their own apps, for things that are helpful for FACET-II.

Favorite things about working at SLAC: 

Right now, I really like the Philly cheesesteak. But I also like being able to talk with people that are helpful and collaborative and open to answering any question that I have.

I like that my project has a real effect and that people can use it and it can help them with their work. It's very collaborative and experimental. It’s an opportunity for me to work on something that has a greater impact on the world, and even if I'm a very small part in that, it's so exciting to be part of it.

Path to SLAC: 

My friends in college really inspired me to pursue my passion – they were determined to pursue their passions and get to where they wanted to get. 

When I found this job posting, it felt like it was perfect for me. It was really awesome to feel like I could use skills I had been working on for a long time and apply them somewhere else.

I'm the first in my family to go to college, but my dad really had a passion for engineering. So, in that sense, I feel like I'm kind of just finishing his dream. 

The biggest obstacle to getting here was not seeing a lot of representation and not knowing that these opportunities were available to people like me. If I had known about opportunities like this I might have pursued them earlier, but I’m so glad I’m here now!

Advice:

Ask around to see if there's anything available. A lot of opportunities are word of mouth or they just kind of fall into your lap at the weirdest times, so making yourself open to opportunities and actively trying to seek out anything that could give you more experience could really help propel your future career.

Don't give up. Especially for people who are the first in their family to pursue a specific career – people that don't have role models or anyone to mentor them through it – it can be really intimidating to be the first one to do it. But someone has to! So just keep trying, and if it doesn't work out maybe it just wasn't meant to be, but at least you gave it your all. 

For questions or comments, contact the SLAC Office of Communications at communications@slac.stanford.edu.

Mark Jimenez
Mark Jimenez. (Elise Overgaard/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

Mark Jimenez

Hometown: Hilo, HI

Education: BA Economics and Political Science, University of Arizona 

BS Computer Science, University of Hawaii at Hilo 

Role at SLAC: Science and Engineering Associate

Directorate: LCLS Directorate – Science Research and Development Division, Material Science

Fellowship projects:

To mathematically characterize materials – like metals, or magnets – you have to look at them at a very small level. But at that level, things get really complicated. To understand a single atom’s ground state is complicated mathematically, and if you want to understand the whole system, the whole material, you're talking about many, many atoms, and your calculation becomes almost impossible. I'm working on how to make the calculations more efficient on high-performance computing systems so that we can describe more complicated systems and materials.

Another project is streamlining the process of data analysis by using machine learning to allow for real-time analysis of LCLS images. The X-ray beam creates many images per second. Analyzing that data can take longer than the experiment, so you get data, then later you realize it would have been interesting to probe a different part of the sample or change some parameters, but now the experiment is over. I’m working on ways to analyze data while the experiment is going on, so that we can make adjustments in real time.

Favorite things about working at SLAC: 

The intellectual curiosity that I see in the scientists I work with and the culture of the national lab is really incredible. These are serious researchers, and it's inspiring to see that they're thinking not just about the atoms and the math, but they're thinking about how they can use their work to make big changes. They're not just doing research for research’s sake, but research for the benefit of mankind.

Path to SLAC: 

I come from a town that has a strong emphasis on science because of our geography – being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with these really tall volcanoes on top of which you can place astronomical observatories and telescopes. Things really revolved around this scientific community, so that was my initial exposure. 

Prior to this role I worked for big tech company, and prior to that I did research. I got to see the difference between working in a research environment versus an industrial environment. I had a real longing for the intellectual curiosity that comes with doing research and being around a lot of researchers, so I looked into the National Lab system.

Advice:

Starting out, I had this idea that you either got it or you don't. It took a little while to realize that these are skills you have to build – programming skills, math skills. A very small portion of society is born with this beautiful, prodigious mathematical mind, but if we relied just on that for innovation and science, we would have almost no scientists. Most scientists have to work at it for a long time, they have to develop these skills. And the only way to build them is to think about them a lot and to practice. 

Manuel Cardoso
Manuel Cardoso. (Elise Overgaard/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

Manuel Cardoso

Hometown: San Bernardino, California

Education: BS Mechanical Engineering, UC Irvine 

Role at SLAC: Mechanical Engineer

Directorate: Technology Innovation Directorate – RF Accelerator Research Division, Applied Electromagnet

Fellowship projects:

I'm assisting with the development of a fourth-iteration klystron – a machine that helps drive SLAC's particle accelerator– that resembles a klystron they built about 20 years ago. I'm helping with the testing and manufacturing side of it. I really enjoy it because it involves the idea of electromagnetism, a part of science that I find intriguing as well as a bit of wizardry. 

Favorite things about working at SLAC: 

Two things. The first one is, the surrounding community, the campus. The weather is beautiful. I enjoy the open space: It allows me to relax at moments, to feel like “okay, I can breathe,” and then go back and work. 

The second is being alongside individuals who are very intelligent in their field. I know that I'm in a safe space. I might fail, but I'll be working alongside those who can teach me the ropes. 

Here I’ve also learned to be more curious about how things work in life – where our food comes from, how our systems are created in terms of highways as well as language, and how language is being used and implemented in technology. Being here keeps me questioning everything – why things are made or structured in a specific way.

Coming to work at SLAC was one of the greatest things I could have endeavored in. It was exciting, but it was also scary. As a first-generation Mexican-American, family is important, and leaving my hometown was hard – my support system was 400 miles away. But it's an important journey to me both as an engineer and as an individual.

Path to SLAC: 

I can recall watching How It's Made and seeing how different items from crayons to snowboards are made in a manufacturing setting. I think that helped spark that idea of engineering and manufacturing.

In high school as I got more into the sciences and high-level math, I started to have a mindset of thinking critically and problem solving. And the cherry on top was the chemistry and biology. I definitely enjoyed STEM. The counselors at my high school told me about engineering so I took a leap of faith into that career track. 

I'm the first in my family to go to college. It's like the weight of the world is on me whenever I think about it. I feel like I'm the trailblazer. I'm learning as I'm going, but those coming right behind me, they're going to have it a little bit smoother. 

Advice: 

My parents raised me on the idea of working hard and when you fall, get back up. But being a first-generation engineer, I didn’t know how to navigate a career in STEM. I didn’t know what a mechanical engineer could do for society in terms of career paths. It was hard not having that structure early on.

My advice: Own your story. Your story is your superpower. Create friendships with individuals who share a similar story, and from there, you create your support system. 


SLAC is a vibrant multiprogram laboratory that explores how the universe works at the biggest, smallest and fastest scales and invents powerful tools used by scientists around the globe. With research spanning particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology, materials, chemistry, bio- and energy sciences and scientific computing, we help solve real-world problems and advance the interests of the nation.

SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

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