The Power of Mentorship: How Jackie Chen is Inspiring the Next Generation to Create a more Sustainable Future

 Jackie Chen ● Distinguished Member of Technical Staff ● Sandia National Laboratories

Jackie Chen ● Distinguished Member of Technical Staff ● Sandia National Laboratories

From a young age, Jackie Chen was a scientific observer, studying her father’s movements in his basement for hours on end. Whether her father was diligently writing detailed Chinese calligraphy or building mechanisms, such as four-bar linkages (which are basic movable chains connected by four joints), Jackie was entranced by his focus. Those early experiences sparked an interest in constructing devices for herself. Jackie attributes her success to the encouragement and the mentorship of her parents and the professors that followed them. Now as a professional mechanical engineer manifesting code to understand ‘turbulence-chemistry’ interactions in combustion and to improve engine models, Jackie provides that same support to future generations of engineers.

As immigrants from China, Jackie’s parents strived to give their family every opportunity for a better life. Growing up in Ohio, Jackie was heavily involved in school activities, piano lessons, Mandarin classes, and extracurricular science fairs. It was during her time in school that her parents provided her with considerable support and guidance.

“During that time in the 60’s and 70’s, there weren’t a lot of Asians in Ohio, so experiencing bias toughened us up. I had a lot of encouragement from my family, and they taught me to embrace diversity and to not conform to what other people think I should be.”

With this steadfast attitude and the advice of her father, Jackie went on to study mechanical engineering at Ohio State University. Jackie realized early in her career the value of seeking out mentors. In college she encountered one of her first professional mentors, Professor Lit Su Han. Along with his graduate students, Jackie was invited to work on a turbine blade for a heat transfer experiment, which proved to be pivotal in her decision to focus her future work on fluid dynamics based on smoke visualization of flow over the blade in the wind tunnel.

After graduating, Jackie went on to pursue a Master of Science in mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley where she once again found a mentor in Boris Rubinsky. Under his direction, Jackie developed a new skill and learned to freeze biological tissue to then observe its topology under a microscope. Her exploration of several different disciplines of science drove her to further her studies, obtaining her Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. As part of her research she worked with a relatively new tool at the time to study turbulence physics.

“I enjoy scientific investigation because of the excitement of understanding new phenomenon.  In my current job, I am able to test new ideas using high-fidelity turbulent combustion simulation tools performed on some of the world’s largest supercomputers.”

One of the simulation tools that Jackie uses now as a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff of the Combustion Research Facility at Sandia National Laboratories is something she pioneered with her fellow postdocs over the past few decades.  Together they developed the first principles direct numerical simulation code (DNS), S3D, that is used by combustion engineers and computer scientists worldwide to study the nuances of fundamental turbulence-chemistry interactions in combustion and to evaluate asynchronous programming model paradigms for advanced computer architectures.   The frequent refactorization of S3D by Jackie and her collaborators is driven by the need to keep up with the evolution of high performance supercomputers which have grown exponentially in performance over the past decades.

The tool she developed is now a standard being used internationally by many research groups, giving Jackie the opportunity to travel, present her findings, and mentor other young students.

From her work with undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students, Jackie has come to realize the importance of  future generations creating sustainable new technologies and her role in guiding them.

“It’s extremely gratifying to watch somebody that you mentor develop confidence and capability and then pursue their own careers when they leave. Many of them have gone on to have successful careers in academia, national laboratories and industry.”

From observer in the basement to award winning engineer, the roles have reversed for Jackie as she provokes thought and instills knowledge in her students, the way her father and professors did for her.

“I would tell them [students] to stay the course and not be afraid of impediments that come their way.  It is important to have good mentors and role models at all levels because it shows it is possible, with a good work ethic and determination,  to be successful in overcoming challenges and embracing new opportunities.”