Employee Spotlight: Ali Simpkins
“Boy, that sounds like fun” thought Alice “Ali” Simpkins as a seventh grader when she read through a brochure about nuclear engineering.
“I can still picture the display table at the Career Day event,” said Simpkins. “I always loved math and science, so I stuck with it. Engineering seemed like a good fit.”
A naysaying neighbor predicted she would never be a nuclear engineer. “I was the youngest of seven children. We were extremely poor, small-town farmers,” said the Springfield, Missouri, native. Simpkins did not listen to the neighbor. Instead, she pushed herself to succeed.
“I had a phenomenal math teacher. I took college-level calculus in high school,” said Simpkins, a health physicist and section manager on the Dose Reconstruction Project for NIOSH.
Simpkins went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nuclear engineering at the University of Missouri, Rolla (now known as the Missouri University of Science and Technology). She is a recipient of the university’s Distinguished Alumni Award.
“My mom was sure to tell our neighbor when I graduated!” Simpkins remarked.
“Being away from home was extremely tough, and I struggled a bit at Rolla, but I had an excellent professor who really encouraged me. Sure enough, after the next semester I was doing well,” Simpkins said. “I still keep in touch with the professor to this day.”
Giving back as a mentor
As a young professional, Simpkins received expert guidance. “Early in my career, I was encouraged to publish quite a bit. I think that helped me a lot, because it got me in a research frame of mind. It set my career for problem solving.” She is the author or co-author of more than 70 publications, presentations, and technical reports.
Simpkins shares her love for nuclear engineering by mentoring high school students individually and by giving presentations at Career Day events, just like the one that put her on the engineering track.
She passes along the advice her father gave her: Find a career you love and you will never work a day in your life. At age 90, her father still loves farming and continues to sell his vegetables at the farmer’s market. “My parents both have a strong work ethic,” said Simpkins, mentioning her dad put his master’s degree in agricultural economics to good use.
“I don’t like putting people in boxes and telling them what they can’t do,” she said. “Instead, I tell them the sky is the limit to what they can do.”
Also, Simpkins shares her commitment to nuclear engineering by actively participating on the Health Physics Society (HPS) Board of Directors. Beginning in July, she will serve as the board’s treasurer.
“I have been involved in HPS since 1993 and always enjoyed serving,” Simpkins said. She is an HPS Fellow and recipient of the Elda E. Anderson Award, an honor bestowed to young members for excellence in research or development, discovery or invention, or significant contributions to HPS. She serves as an associate editor for Health Physics Journal.
Building a 25-year career
Simpkins credits her involvement in the Health Physics Society to helping advance her career. Each time she has changed jobs, it has been because of her professional connections within the HPS.
At South Carolina’s Savannah River National Laboratory, she spent 14 years working on safety analyses and environmental dosimetry. She oversaw technical management of the computer codes and holds two software copyrights.
After a move to San Antonio, Texas, in 2006, she joined the Southwest Research Institute’s Center for Nuclear Waste Regulatory Analyses where her research included biosphere characteristics in support of regulatory reviews for the potential high-level radioactive waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, and biosphere dose model development. A few years later, she was promoted to assistant director of Environmental Science and Environmental Engineering where she managed environmental projects on contracts with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Her more recent employment has been with NV5/Dade Moeller where she was a senior nuclear engineer and senior health physicist on the NIOSH dose reconstruction project for 10 years. She joined ORAU in 2019 and continues to perform worker dose reconstruction from her home office in San Antonio.
“One of the exciting things about my career is that I have learned a lot of new things,” Simpkins said. Speaking of her current dose reconstruction work, “Every case is a little different because you are examining the records of different employees, experiences and facilities. The work is like a fact-finding mission to gather the pieces and provide a realistic estimate of the dose. It requires problem-solving skills and professional judgment.”
ORAU provides innovative scientific and technical solutions to advance national priorities in science, education, security and health. Through specialized teams of experts, unique laboratory capabilities and access to a consortium of more than 100 major Ph.D.-granting institutions, ORAU works with federal, state, local and commercial customers to advance national priorities and serve the public interest. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).