Anastasia Ilgen, Ph.D.


Anastasia Ilgen

Senior Member of Technical Staff

Sandia National Laboratories


Joint B.S./M.S., Water Quality and Engineering, Kamchatka State Technical University, Russia

Ph.D., Environmental Chemistry, University of Alaska, Fairbanks

Anastasia Ilgen has a deep understanding of the surfaces of minerals. Ilgen, a technical staff member in the Geochemistry Department at Sandia National Laboratories, designs and conducts research on the chemical reactions that occur where rock and water meet. This research helps her and her colleagues understand how chemical contaminants behave and move in the natural environment. It also helps them assess the effects of newly developing technologies like underground CO2 storage and unconventional natural gas extraction.

Ilgen received a joint bachelor's and master's degree in water quality and engineering from Kamchatka State Technical University in Russia. Afterward, she worked for three years at the Kamchatka Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. She studied geothermal phenomena and the effects of volcanic eruptions on snow chemistry, and she monitored volcanic activity using satellite data. During her time at the Kamchatka Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, she became familiar with organizing field work in extreme locations (such as on the volcanoes of Kamchatka) – experience which she was able to use during her doctoral studies and in her professional career.

After spending six months as an invited visiting researcher at the Alaska Volcano Observatory, she made the switch to environmental geochemistry. She earned a Ph.D. in environmental chemistry at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and stayed on for a short postdoc with her graduate advisor.

For her Ph.D. and postdoctoral research, she spent time collecting data at the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. During a late night data collection run, she saw an ad for a staff scientist position at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. The job description sounded like it was written for her. She decided to apply. After making it through the selection process, she eagerly jumped at the opportunity to join Sandia National Laboratories’ Geochemistry Group, which gives her access to some of the greatest minds in her field. She’s been in her current position for just over two years.

"I have the best of both worlds: lab work and field work!" she says about her current job. "I want to make a difference with my research and I'm having fun!"

The field studies have taken me to some wonderful places – like volcanoes and hot springs in Kamchatka peninsula, Russia, Denali National Park, and the northern most point in the US – Barrow, AK. I get to work with amazing people, and contribute to important science.

Internships, co-ops, or research experiences as an undergraduate:

At the time, I thought some of the undergraduate classes were not relevant to what I wanted to do, but now, working, I find that I use pretty much every bit of education that I've ever received.

I was a year-round student intern at a marine biology laboratory at the Kamchatka Institute of Ecology (the name has changed since I worked there in 1998–2001) for pretty much the entire duration of my undergraduate school. The main benefit was finding out what I wanted to do as a career (research, of course!), working in teams, and other numerous opportunities for professional growth. For example, I got to go on a 2-week sampling trip in the Pacific Ocean. We were on a fish-processing ship with 80 people on it, and got to sample bottom sediments with a huge sampler that had to be lifted with a crane and dropped to the bottom of the ocean.

How you found your first chemistry-related job:

One of my professors offered me a job at the research lab he was opening at the Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. This job offer came before I even graduated with my BS/MS degree.

Primary job responsibilities:

I do fundamental research on several projects. I design the experiments: the logistics, goals, methods and procedures, and I lay it all out for the two students I supervise and for the lab technologists and the staff members I'm working with. One of my projects, funded by the Department of Energy (DOE) Basic Energy Sciences (BES) office, looks at redox (oxidation–reduction) chemistry happening on the surfaces of clay mineral particles.

I also look at various mineral alteration reactions – for example, how shale caprock responds to the introduction of carbon dioxide to predict what will happen during geologic storage of carbon, or how shale reacts with fracking fluid to recognize geochemical changes in the subsurface caused by the development of unconventional reservoirs.

Typical day on the job:

I currently have five active research projects and a large research proposal to write. I start my week by defining priority tasks for each project. Three of the projects require experimental lab work. I spend time designing those experiments, reading relevant literature, and communicating with people who work with me on these projects about experiments or analyses that need to be done. I usually have a lot of different projects and responsibilities vying for my attention. For example, we are currently organizing a workshop on shale science, and I’m on a committee to figure out updates to our current laboratory space.

As a researcher at a national laboratory, I work with many different groups from other national laboratories, from industry, from universities, and with members of the public who come to us with the need for applied research solutions. Often, we operate as a consulting company addressing very specific needs of our “customers” – determining how to clean up a toxic spill, how to desalinate groundwater for cattle to drink, or to find the best application for clay minerals mined by a small company. But most of the time, our “customer” is DOE, who wants cutting edge research to address national needs related to energy, climate, and environment.

Work environment:

I have a shared office and two laboratories. I spend about 20% of my time in the laboratory, either processing samples or running analysis, but more often instructing students and others working on my projects. I spend some time at different laboratories and user facilities working with my collaborators, and occasionally I do field work. Significant time is spent at different meetings, and the majority of work I do is at my computer.

Work schedule:

I work 40–60 hours a week. The environment is fast paced. Overtime is not required, but because of the large number of projects, the deadlines are frequently clumped together. So I do find myself needing to work extra hours during some months. However, there is also freedom to work a flexible schedule, and that helps with the work–life balance.

Travel schedule:

On average, I'm gone about 1–5 days a month. The time is fairly evenly split between presenting papers at conferences, collecting data using the specialized instruments at other national labs, and attending project meetings for the collaborative projects. I also do some field work, collecting water samples and soil cores to bring back to the lab. For example, I have travelled Pacific Northwest National Laboratories to meet with collaborators, ACS national meetings to where I might organize a session or present my research, and to our annual Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) project meeting.

Tools you can’t live without:

It changes. I use liquid chromatography coupled to the inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (LC-ICP-MS) and synchrotron based X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy (XAS) and software for the XAS data analysis as my main tools. Of course, I cannot live without crystallographic databases and X-ray diffraction. And recently, we’re doing more imaging (elemental maps and transmission electron microscope data), so image processing packages is a new thing I need to master.

What you like most about your job:

I love my job. It gives me ample opportunities to be creative, pursue new ideas, and continue to learn.

Also, I love the flexibility and breadth of my projects. This allows me to have the best of both worlds – to do fun field work as well as laboratory experiments. The field studies have taken me to some wonderful places – like volcanoes and hot springs in Kamchatka peninsula, Russia, Denali National Park, and the northern most point in the US – Barrow, AK. I get to work with amazing people, and contribute to important science.

Best productivity trick:

Caffeine. Just kidding. Plan ahead and eliminate distractions. Block out a chunk of time and just work on one thing at that time. Be realistic about how much time you'll need to finish the task.

Best career advice you’ve received:

I don't know. Lots of people have given me lots of good advice over time. Just do the best job you can with whatever you're doing, and be nice to the people around you.

Skills or talents that make you a good fit for your job:

Love of science and perseverance.

Essential habit you wish you’d started earlier:

Exercise and take time for yourself. I've always been a super hard worker and it's easy for me to get wrapped up in my work forgetting to exercise and take care of myself.

Favorite ACS resource:

ACS national meetings, access to my colleagues, and relevant webinars. I watched the ACS career development webinars pretty regularly before I got my current position. I have less time to watch webinars now, but they were helpful earlier in my career.

How you've benefited from being an ACS member:

Presenting at the ACS Meetings prepared for me for my Ph.D. defense, gave visibility to my research, and allowed networking with colleagues. I recently became the Program Chair-elect of the ACS Geochemistry Division, which is one way I can give back to the society.