Suraya Omar first became intrigued by nuclear technology as a Stanford undergrad and CISAC honors student. Today she’s helping build nuclear engines for the U.S. Navy.
Omar’s fascination began in the popular MS&E course, Technology and National Security, taught by CISAC’s Siegfried Hecker and William J. Perry, the former head of the Los Alamos National Lab and U.S. secretary of state, respectively.
“I loved the class,” said Omar, who graduated with a BS in materials science and engineering in 2012 and a MS&E master’s degree in 2013. “The nuclear-related topics were interesting because it's a powerful technology and interesting from an engineering standpoint – but crazy complex from a safety and security perspective.”
Omar serves in the U.S. Navy as an engineer in the Naval Reactors Headquarters (NR) in Washington, D.C. The NR provides program management and technical expertise to the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program, which builds nuclear propulsion plants for aircraft carriers and submarines. The NR oversees everything from their design to installment and operation.
Building nuclear engines, more than most things, requires stringent attention to minute details. That’s where Omar comes in.
“When the engineer responsible for an item receives a request for approval, they send that to all the sections that have a stake in that decision,” Omar said. “So my workday involves reading a lot of incoming proposals and background material, then asking questions, such as: `Is the recommended material appropriate for the application? Are there corrosion or structural concerns?’ and then discussing with other engineers and making recommendations.”
Omar says this also entails a lot of contact with the national nuclear laboratories to discuss upcoming and ongoing test programs “or get a more detailed technical perspective.”
The Naval Reactors Headquarters is one of the more prestigious components of the U.S. Navy, due to its polished reputation for implementing efficient management practices and maintaining a rigorous technical culture. Congress and presidential administrations often tap NR staffers for consultation and higher office; their skills and training also make NR engineers highly sought after by private enterprise.
Omar credits CISAC with inspiring her to follow a career in nuclear engineering. The prestigious honors program has taken Stanford seniors from more than 21 different majors and programs since its inception in 2000. More than 150 students have graduated from the yearlong program, which launches in Washington, D.C. with a two-week policy brainstorming college, and culminates with a thesis that deals with a major international security issue.
Omar, who was advised by Hecker, wrote her thesis about “Critical Concerns: Evaluating the safety of North Korea’s new light water reactor.”
“Besides solidifying my interest in nuclear applications, participating in the CISAC thesis program helped me quickly recognize areas I don’t completely understand when doing research, and taught me how to be scrupulous in pursuing those questions thoroughly,” she said.
While she was completing her MS degree at Stanford, she joined the Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate Program and interviewed with NR in Washington, D.C. just after graduation. Today she holds the rank of Ensign (O-1), a junior commissioned officer in the United States Navy.
Omar is committed to Naval Reactors Headquarters until 2019 and enjoys being part of the community.
“Since so many big and small decisions come through NR, we deal with a lot of minutiae,” she said. “But it’s always encouraging to remember that our decisions have a direct impact on the fleet, and that it’s the diligent attention to detail that has ensured safe naval nuclear operations since the beginning of the program,” she said.
Nonetheless, she has her eye to the future.
“I may stay on after 2019, but I'm also interested in pursuing something in strategic diplomacy or nuclear security and safety on a more global level,” she said.
Joshua Alvarez was a CISAC Honors Student for the 2011-2012 academic year.