Anh Tu Quach, pictured in black, third from right, on a tour of the world’s largest, most energetic laser, the National Ignition Facility, with esteemed visitor Duy-Loan Le, Texas Instruments’ first female Senior Fellow.
Anh Tu Quach is a first generation college graduate who works at LLNL as an applications developer for the environmental programs, specializing in data-driven, browser-based applications. She serves as group leader to computer scientists supporting environmental programs, radioactive hazardous waste management, and the weapons complex, linking group members to training opportunities and resources around the lab. Anh has been an integral part of Computation recruiting, serving as the University of the Pacific Team Lead, an active summer student mentor, and contributing to the hire of eight past summer students. Anh spends her free energy reading, gardening, and creating opportunities for her kids, ages 10, 8, and 1, to become multilingual in music, foreign languages, and STEM.
1) What inspired you to work in STEM?
My earliest inspiration was my mother the autodidact; she spoke five languages, was excellent in math and communication, and valued education enough to seek refuge in the United States. Through weekly library trips and penny pinched Chinese lessons, she taught me her pearls of wisdom before she passed away when I was twelve. My parents constantly demonstrated that obstacles can be overcome by determination and everyone around us is a cast member to life's experience.
I'm lucky to have encountered STEM docents throughout my childhood who opened my eyes to the possibilities of science, technology, engineering, and math. Examples include the second grade summer school teacher who taught me how to make the blinking green triangle draw cool computer graphics, the fourth grade required reading book A Wrinkle in Time featuring scientist parents, the middle school IT teacher who had me upgrading Apple IIe RAM, the middle school advanced math and science teachers who made their subjects fun and the classmates who provided the healthy competition, the high school honors chemistry teacher who inspired me to major in biochemistry through his relevant labs and lectures, the MECCA field trips to PG&E / PacBell / LLNL, the work study boss who convinced me to switch my major to computer science, and the university IT manager who mentored me in network diagnostics.
STEM is everywhere and required daily - geometry and physics to play pool, chemistry to bake, biology to grow your own garden, engineering to unclog that bath tub without the proper tools, technology to blog - you just have to observe and study it!
2) What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?
There is a funny story about how I ended up working for the Energy Department. I went on a MECCA field trip to LLNL as a high school senior but was denied tour entrance due to lack of United States citizenship. However, I was able to stay at the lab's Discovery Center for visitors instead, where I spent the several hours I had to wait absorbing the impact of science from the displays. Four years later, after a citizenship ceremony and computer science degree under my belt, I not only work at LLNL, I represent it each time I go to a recruiting event, volunteer in the community, and informally spread the value of becoming STEM-educated with all the students I meet.
LLNL offers vast opportunities for computer scientists to partner with any science discipline to enable the research. In fourteen years, I've supported multiple scientific programs and have held varied positions such as software engineering consultant helping others with process improvement and tools, database developer, data-driven web-based applications developer, Computation technical recruiter, summer student mentor, Asian Pacific American Council (APAC) scholarship chair, deputy software leader, and group leader. I love that I get to learn science for free, apply my analytical computer science skills, and help contribute to the nation's safety and security!
3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
I have two recommendations: Suzuki method and public libraries.
The Suzuki Talent Education method for learning musical instruments operates on the philosophy of "everyone can" and implements it through early and often exposure reinforced by perseverance; the Suzuki method is modeled after natural language learning of the mother tongue in the order of comprehension, speaking, reading, then writing and grammar. This early introduction strategy is what we need to employ to engage, attract, and cultivate more female, underrepresented, and unlikely scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians by first introducing it as fun and relevant and reinforcing it with classes and role models.
The American public school system generally lacks early emphasis in foreign languages, math, and science compared to the rest of the world unless you happen to attend a dual immersion program that infuses the scientific method into weekly labs. Preschools equipped with LEGO Duplo Simple Machines can help make science concepts concrete. Schools can offer the healthy competitive avenues of science Olympiad and science fairs that work to bolster both STEM and communication skills. If you live near a national laboratory or Silicon Valley-like technology center, there is no shortage of science exposure opportunities, such as LLNL’s Fun with Science show, Science on Saturdays, Expanding Your Horizons (EYH), Making Electives Count for Career Achievement (MECCA), Take Your Daughter to Work Day, Energy Department’s IT Job Shadow Day, Sandia’s Cyber Technologies Academy, FIRST Lego League, Science Bowl, etc. Code.org offers free programming lessons one hour at a time and is pushing to make programming a part of public school curriculum.
Two – supporting the public library system would be an excellent avenue for leveling the playing field since it has become a community hub in recent years, providing hands-on computer literacy classes, science-based shows, discounted museum passes, puzzles, and augmenting their lending collection to include instructional DVDs such as National Geographic, The Standard Deviants, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Schlessinger Media’s Math for Children Series, and PBS Kids’ math adventure series for ages 8-11, Cyberchase.
Early and continued exposure with periodic reminders in the form of role models and mentors is the key. Although I was exposed to Logo programming in second grade, I didn't connect it to a career until a mentor mentioned it while I was in college.
Science revolves around inborn curiosity; observe any baby intensely examining a colorful new object or one who repeatedly throws a toy down to see how many times the adult will pick up the toy in this “experiment” to witness this natural curiosity. We need to take care not to let that curiosity whither and die. We need to tend that fire through targeted programs, diverse mentors, and accessible resources. We need to provide educational opportunities for all learning styles, particularly tactile/kinesthetic, and to help them see relevance and the big picture through application and safe experimentation.
4) Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
Math is the foundation to every field of science, engineering, and technology, and doubly important for pursuing graduate school.
Take as many advanced classes as you can, especially in foreign languages, math and science in middle school and insist on this vigorous schedule every year of high school in order to have all the necessary coursework to qualify for university admissions. If you’ve exhausted your high school’s advanced math/science offerings, supplement your schedule with a few community college classes.
Always be on the lookout for the mentors who enter your life and listen! A mentor is anyone willing to share his or her hard-earned wisdom and experiences with you.
In the computer science world, your skills can become obsolete in six months; a university degree can only teach you how to teach yourself. Adopt a lifelong learning mindset. Some resources are local hackathons, science/tech museums, and MOOCs like Khan Academy, iTunes University, Coursera, edX, Udacity, Academic Earth, and Canvas Network.
Keep a portfolio showcasing your analytical, problem-solving skills and have your elevator speech ready. A great idea is only as good as the message conveying the importance and context.
Pay it forward and tutor or mentor someone in STEM. This not only solidifies your own understanding of the subject, it’s weighted just as important as relevant internships.
Answer that call for participation! Be passionate. Volunteer for conferences to expand your professional network, gain subsidized conference registration, meet new friends, travel, and have fun learning! Supercomputing (November), ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing (February), and Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (October) are three conferences which offer broader engagement scholarships and student volunteer opportunities. Check out Society of Women Engineers (SWE) also. Opportunities are everywhere as long as you are receptive to seeing and experiencing the wonder and wonderful people around us.
5) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
When I am not chauffeuring my kids, we can be caught reading a good book. I once asked my two older kids if they would like to learn geometry to which my 7-year-old daughter asked me in return why she would want to do that – there’s no action, adventure, or comedy in that geometry book.
I squeeze in gardening whenever I can so my kids can experience flavorful fruit, vegetables, and herbs.
I geek out on kung fu serial dramas, watching these series since the age of five and thus absorbing Cantonese, Mandarin, and Vietnamese languages along the way. The kick-butt female who could cure folks with traditional Chinese medicine gave me a strong female role model. I periodically have to binge watch a few hours to prevent my language skills from languishing from lack of use like my French. Sadly, I only get to use my Teochew Chinese, Vietnamese, English, and my current project’s programming languages and technology stack on a daily basis.