Sandia petroleum engineer featured on DOE Women in STEM

By Sarah Jewel Johnson

Friday, May 21, 2021

Tonya Ross
STEM RISING — Sandia petroleum engineer Tonya Ross was recognized by DOE as an inspiring female engineer. (Photo courtesy of Tonya Ross)

The DOE is highlighting Sandia petroleum engineer Tonya Ross as an inspiring female engineer through its DOE Women @ Energy: STEM Rising website, which honors women in STEM fields throughout the DOE complex.

Tonya started as a contractor at Sandia in 2017 in environmental planning. She accepted a position as a systems engineer in June 2018 and immediately contributed to mission success through a comprehensive hazard analysis/risk assessment of the Radioactive Mixed Waste Management Facility. Tonya led the effort to develop and implement a sitewide hazard analysis and qualitative risk assessment process that supports all aspects of work at the Labs.

Tonya also does geomechanical modeling, and in February 2021 she moved into the geotechnology organization, where she creates and reviews two-dimensional finite element meshes to support the underground oil storage caverns in salt domes for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Tonya immigrated from Guyana and studied at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland and then at New Mexico Tech, where she received a bachelor’s in petroleum engineering in 2013. Tonya’s professors urged her to continue into a master’s program, which she completed in May 2015. In the meantime, she worked with ConocoPhillips, exploring field development planning, designing and optimizing surface facilities and piping systems.

Her graduate research, “A Sensitivity Analysis of Steam Injection for Naturally Fractured Light Oil Reservoir,” analyzed different recovery mechanisms during steam injection for three types of fluid samples (light, medium and heavy) in non-fractured and naturally fractured reservoirs using computational analysis of thermal phase behaviors of fluids in ultra-low permeability formations.

Tonya is pursuing a second master’s degree in engineering management and a doctorate in petroleum engineering from New Mexico Tech. Her current research, “Improved Sweep During Polymer Flooding by Controlling Sand Movement,” is based on efforts to improve enhanced oil recovery operations in oil reservoirs located in unconsolidated sands.

I interviewed Tonya for her feature spot on the DOE Women @ Energy website.

What inspired you to work in STEM?

I enjoyed math and sciences classes growing up, coupled with my curious mindset as a child, I wanted to know the what, the why and the how of different processes, equipment and even nature. Growing up in Guyana as the fourth out of five children in a single-parent home, I watched shows on the television and was curious about how the television generated the images. So, I took the family television apart to discover what was inside and how the parts fit together. My mom was not a big fan of the idea. My curious mindset drove me into the STEM field the same way it drove me to take apart the television when I was young.

I knew I wanted to do engineering, but I didn’t know what type of engineering to do. When I first moved to the United States, everyone suggested nursing because it’s traditionally a female profession, and they said engineering would be too hard for a female. I don’t like limitations, so I just thought, ‘I can do this! I’m not going to let being a female turn me away from doing anything I want.’

After presenting at the honor society conference on the “Innovation in the Field of Engineering,” I became interested in petroleum engineering because I wanted to understand more about petroleum products, how those products are processed from the subsurface, and the movement of those products at surface and subsurface level. Even though being an engineer can be challenging, working in STEM is so rewarding. If you have a core understanding of engineering and put your mind to it, you can apply engineering to many things. For example, system safety engineering has nothing to do with petroleum, but my understanding of the petroleum engineering process helped link the concepts.

What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?

What excited me about our work in the Energy Department is that it’s never the same. Engineering pairs nicely with my curious mindset, and I love a challenge. At Sandia, something new happens all the time, and I regularly find things that I didn’t know existed. I think it’s so important to try to expand your knowledge base constantly.

During my time in the ES&H Planning Department as a systems engineer, I worked on hazard analysis and qualitative risk assessments with different line partners across Sandia. We looked at various factors to ensure that the workers, the environment and the mission are safe. Work that incorporates so many people opens so many opportunities to touch different processes of the lab.

I support various projects for the Geotechnology and Engineering Department. For the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, I model the mechanical behavior of oil storage caverns built in salt domes. The four salt domes where oil is stored each have a dome-scale finite element geomechanical model that evaluates the creep behavior of the salt in response to the altered stress conditions caused by the presence of the caverns, and the effect on surface and subsurface infrastructure at the facilities. My contributions in this area have strengthened Sandia’s modeling capabilities that are crucial to its technical advisory role for the SPR. My work here at Sandia is exciting because there are lots of opportunities for innovation. It’s never limiting. You are in control of where you go, especially at Sandia. You can decide to go the management route, stay on the technical or research path or be super technical. There is so much flexibility, and I love it.

How can our country engage more women, girls and other underrepresented groups in STEM?

There are various ways to engage more women, girls and other underrepresented groups in STEM. Some of these include having more women role models in STEM. As a female professional entering in a STEM field, the first thing I do is look at the leadership of a company because it tells a story, particularly as a female, of where my cap may be within the industry. Engaging women, girls and other underrepresented groups means breaking stereotypes and showing the various groups anyone can be in the STEM field.  We need to avoid generalizing roles and career paths based on gender and create awareness for opportunities. I have volunteered at various groups that help get the word out and motivate underrepresented groups to work in STEM, such as the Society of Women Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers.

Finally, engaging underrepresented groups means having more involvement. It means taking STEM programs to underserved areas and engraining education into the communities.

Do you have tips you’d recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?

I’d recommend to anyone trying to enter the STEM field — especially women, girls and other underrepresented groups — to be confident, passionate and willing to work hard. It is also important to note that making a mistake does not equal failure. Instead, young engineers should accept that mistakes happen and use them as an opportunity to grow, rather than being defined by a mistake.

I would also say networking is a crucial part of this field. Knowing your self-worth and understanding who you are as a person is critical. Knowing who you are will help you succeed in any environment and give you the courage to push back if needed. It is also vital to have support systems that will encourage you to keep learning and growing in the STEM field.

When you have free time, what are your hobbies?

Well, with my limited free time, I love to volunteer – it’s something I feel I need to do. I love to play and watch rugby. I used to coach middle school rugby in Houston, and I volunteered at the hospital and the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Now I volunteer as a co-lecturer for the petroleum engineering senior design class at New Mexico Tech, where I review and critique senior design projects.

I love to travel because understanding culture helps you embrace a new perspective in life and have an open mindset. I also love to read world history. As an immigrant into this country, I’m interested in learning about U.S. history because there is so much to learn, and I don’t want to be ignorant about the history. I think it’s easy to get caught up in surface discussions with others, so I take time to learn how history fits into the current day and why things work the way they do. I have the mindset that I should be learning all the time!