Math and research foundation became springboard for one distinguished alumnus’ career change


Debra Levey Larson

Rich Field with his wife, Shellie Bouma, at the annual aerospace engineering awards banquet on April 18 at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign. Field’s parents, Richard and Barbara Field, were also in attendance.
Rich Field with his wife, Shellie Bouma, at the annual aerospace engineering awards banquet on April 18 at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign. Field’s parents, Richard and Barbara Field, were also in attendance.
For the first 20 years of his career, Rich Field was “doing aerospace engineering and loving it.” Then he switched. He attributes some of his ability to make a major career change to the basics he learned as an undergrad and graduate student at the University of Illinois.

Field received a 2018 Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Department of Aerospace Engineering. He holds two aerospace degrees from U of I: a B.S. in 1993 and an M.S. in 1995.

Since 1995, Field has worked at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, first as a junior member of the technical staff, then as a senior member. In 2007, he was named a principal member of the technical staff. From 1995 to 2015, he worked in the Engineering Sciences Center, participating in research and development activities on a diverse set of problems including stochastic mechanics, flow-induced random vibration, reduced-order modeling, material microstructure, model uncertainty and validation, and climate modeling.

In addition to his two degrees from Illinois, Field earned a master’s degree and doctorate from Cornell University, both of which are in structural engineering and applied mathematics.

He had been at Sandia for six years when he decided it was time to start a doctoral program.

“Even when I was at Illinois, I knew I wanted to get a Ph.D. but at that point, I didn’t know what I wanted to study,” Field said. “Working at Sandia for six years helped me see what Sandia does and to identify a specific area of study for a Ph.D. that might help solve a hard problem that is interesting to them.”

Field said unlike many graduate students, when he started working on his Ph.D., he already knew what his thesis would be about—model selection. “Sandia has a wonderful program called the Doctoral Studies Program. They paid my tuition and three-quarters of my salary while I was at Cornell.  For that, I had to finish the degree in three years, which was tough, and I had to return to Sandia to work for at least three years once I was done with school.”

About being back in academia after so long, Field said, “I remember being really nervous before my first test. But after that, I was ok.”

In 2016, Field made a substantial career change—still at Sandia, but big. He moved into the Data Science and Applications Department in the Threat Intelligence Center.

“Sandia is a place that allows the kind of career change that I made,” Field said. “I started branching out into climate modeling, materials science on a very small scale, then became interested in a group that does cryptography and machine learning, which is very mathematical. I didn’t know much about it but I was able to help with some of the statistics work they were doing. The data science world is constantly changing and I wanted to be a part of it.”

How’d he do what, on the surface at least, may appear to be a completely different field of study?

First of all, Field said, “Math is math. The math skills that I learned at the University of Illinois and later at Cornell gave me a great foundation.  In aerospace engineering, I had a piece of a mechanics model that I didn’t understand. I used math to describe it statistically and then see how the system responds. In data science, most everything is described statistically.”

Field added that following a research path has also contributed to his ability to switch careers.

“In research, you’re constantly getting into a scenario in which you don’t understand what’s going on, so you read papers, ask questions, and self-teach. Research can be frustrating. There is a lot of trial and error, but you have to just keep trying. That mindset from my B.S. and M.S. at Illinois helped me, because when I switched careers at Sandia, I didn’t understand the problems at the beginning.”

In the past two years, Field has worked on complex national security problems in graph and text analytics, social network modeling, anomaly detection and classification in communication net-works, and statistical models for DNA sequences. Today, he is a Principal Member of Technical Staff in Sandia’s Department of Data Science and Applications in their Threat Intelligence Center. 

Although he can’t talk about specifics, Field described the kind of problems he works to solve.

“There is a lot of open source data available today. We build computer models based on data like this, then use them for national security issues. For example, a network is made up of nodes and edges: nodes could be people, and edges are formed if there is a relationship established between them. Using these types of models we can, for example, model how influence or information propagates through a group. There are also a lot of business applications. If you’re an advertiser, who is the best person in that network to target with advertisements—who will spread that information?”

Field is also an adjunct professor of mechanical engineering at New Mexico Tech University in Socorro, New Mexico, since 2008. He is a member of the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) and of the EMI Probabilistic Methods Committee of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Field is listed as an author or co-author on over 35 journal articles and given papers and presentations at over 60 conferences.

Sandia National Laboratories is a multimission laboratory managed and operated by National Technology & Engineering Solutions of Sandia, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Honeywell International Inc., for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, C.A., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.