Zigzag. That’s the advice Georgia Sandoval, a high-performance architect at Intel, has for STEM students.
“You think there’s only one path for you and if you fail, everything’s going to fall apart,” recalls Sandoval, 28. That’s when you learn to zigzag.
Sandoval bases that insight on her own story. “If you don’t get an internship, then try for a research opportunity,” she says. “If one path doesn’t work, try another until you get where you want to be. Nobody has a linear path in life.”
In high school in Tuba City, Arizona, Sandoval was often the only girl in math classes. Because she was shy, she never applied for extracurricular programs. “It was a lack of confidence,” she explains. “I didn’t think I’d get in any, so why bother?”
Things didn’t click until she was a junior at Arizona State University and took a coding class. “I really loved it,” she says. A year later, she graduated with a degree in computational mathematics.
Today, after stints at Boeing and Raytheon, she’s at Intel helping create the world’s first exascale computer. Able to perform a quintillion floating-point computations per second, this new breed of ultra-supercomputer will help scientists model climate change, map the brain, and conduct advanced physics research.
Sandoval’s job involves making performance projections, a role that entails far more than crunching numbers. “We have brainstorming meetings throughout the day on how we’re going to solve the next problem,” she says, and collaborates with scientists from multiple national labs, who send her bundles of their code to evaluate.
Her Navajo heritage has guided and strengthened Sandoval along her path, which has not always been easy. She was single mother in college who had to work her way from tribal college to community college and finally to Arizona State University. Being a role model for her child inspired her to finish her college degree.
“My parents continue to say, remember who you are, and remember who your people are, so you’re grounded,” says Sandoval.
She has a special fondness for her masani (her mother’s mother) who told her, “The way to succeed in this new world of technology is to use your brain, study, and always walk on dirt to remember where you came from.” Sandoval offers that advice to today’s students: “Find the balance between culture and modern society, without sacrificing your core identity.” Above all, she wants students to remember they’re not alone. “In college I was pushed to network, even when I didn’t want to,” she recalls. “But I made sure to be myself. People can see when you’re faking it. Explore new areas — there are so many opportunities out there.”
Succeeding in college networking was a big step from her days as a shy high school student. She wishes that back then she had learned an important lesson. “It is okay to admit you need help, to admit you’re scared,” she explains. “The most important thing is to talk to someone, to ask for help — to figure out what you want and build your confidence.”
Georgia Sandoval has come a long way. “I was always the quiet girl in the corner,” she says. “I’m far from that now.”
Reprinted by permission from Winds of Change © 2020 by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES).