Sandia National Laboratories engineer named Scientist of the Year
"I was the only farm worker who had a calculus book in his car," joked Sal Rodriguez when asked about his upbringing.
But it was no joke. The son of immigrants, who grew up in the tiny town of Calexico, CA, worked in the fields to put himself through college.
Sal Rodriguez showing the dimpled rocket he helped create as part of a 2022 fluid dynamics project with the University of New Mexico. [Credit: Photo by Jennifer Plante/Sandia National Laboratories]
"My dad instilled in us a work ethic, and my mom always believed in education," Rodriguez said. "They wanted us to get good grades, and that is what I did."
But Rodriguez, now based in Albuquerque, NM, went far beyond just getting good grades. He earned three master's degrees and two doctorates, has 240 publications to his name along with multiple patents and copyrights, and has earned countless accolades in his nearly 30-year career at Sandia National Laboratories. However, the latest award has left him a bit speechless.
HENAAC Scientist of the Year
Great Minds in STEM, which recognizes America's top engineers and scientists from the Hispanic community, will honor Rodriguez as Scientist of the Year at its annual Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference in Pasadena, CA, Oct. 11-14. It's a first for a Sandia employee.
"I am out of my skin here. I'm thinking this can't be real, you know. I am still pinching myself," Rodriguez said.
While Sandia initially nominated Rodriguez for the Outstanding Technical Achievement Award, the HENAAC committee elevated his nomination to Scientist of the Year. Scientist of the Year and Engineer of the Year are the highest of the conference's honors, reserved for individuals who model excellence and leadership, making profound contributions to industries, STEM fields, communities, and the nation.
A long resume
Rodriguez's resume encompasses 38 years of experience in design, safety, and analysis of nuclear, non-nuclear, and aerodynamic systems. His expertise spans computational fluid dynamics, advanced high-temperature refractory high-entropy alloys, turbulence, aerodynamic drag reduction through surface modification, advanced manufacturing, swirl, and heat transfer. He has designed and modeled gas, water, molten salt, and heavy-water-cooled reactors. However, Rodriguez talks most passionately about some of his recent projects.
One of them was a collaboration with a University of New Mexico student involving fluid dynamics. They reduced drag on a rocket and a Ford Mustang by 40% and 25%, respectively, by dimpling their surfaces, similar to the concept of putting dimples on a golf ball to make it fly farther.
Another project involved advanced high temperatures in molten salt reactors. Rodriguez believes his team now holds the record for running molten salt corrosion experiments at the highest temperatures ever, 965 C, while leaving no visible corrosion of the materials.
Rodriguez is also proud of his recent work to promote small modular reactors, helping countries like Estonia, Armenia, and Slovenia transition from shale energy to nuclear energy to become energy independent. But one of his proudest achievements is the "Applied Computational Fluid Dynamics and Turbulence Modeling" book he authored, which is currently used worldwide.
The power of perseverance
While his parents instilled a work ethic in him and his siblings, Rodriguez pursued it far beyond their expectations. During his sophomore year in high school, some students from UCLA visited his geometry class and talked about careers in engineering.
"I looked at the list, and I saw the words 'nuclear engineering,' and I was like, 'Wow, I want to be that!'" Rodriguez said. "I was 16. That is what opened my eyes, and ever since then that was my dream."
Rodriguez worked in the fields with his grandmother picking strawberries and raspberries during summers and helped his dad irrigate to earn money. It was on one of those days that his dad told him, "OK, now that you're 17, about to graduate from high school, either you join the military or you get a job, but you're on your own. What are you going to do now?"
Rodriguez remembers that when he told his dad about his plan to go to UC Santa Barbara to get a bachelor's degree in nuclear engineering, his dad responded with a simple, "Okay, good," not grasping the significance until years later.
Not done yet
Rodriguez continues his work at Sandia while raising three kids with his wife of 26 years. Two of his kids are in college, pursuing careers in engineering like their dad, while the youngest, who is still in high school, is earning awards for chemistry. In his free time, he works with middle and high school students from underserved minority populations, with the Sandia Science Club he founded, and with MANOS, Sandia's hands-on science and engineering program for Hispanic students. He also loves to cook traditional family recipes, has a black belt in Okinawa-style karate, and plays ranchera and rock bass guitar with a band.
It's clear that Rodriguez not only has a passion for his work but for life. He said being recognized for that passion is amazing. "When I found out that I was the first Sandian ever to get this award, that is pretty humbling. Yet I will say, the best of me is not yet out there."
Published September 2023
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