March 28, 2023

Mechanical engineer Jessica Aguilar is a Dallas native, who worked in the defense, biosciences, and semiconductor industries before joining Berkeley Lab’s Engineering Division six-and-a-half years ago as a manufacturing and procurement coordinator.

“Before I applied, I did some research and learned that Berkeley Lab builds one-of-a-kind science instruments, and that really excited me and drew me to work at the Lab,” Aguilar says. 

Moving from Texas to California was a big transition with “very positive culture changes that opened a lot of opportunities for me,” she says. 

The most recent opportunity was working on the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument. Better known as DESI, for short, it is a land-based telescope located at Kitt Peak National Observatory, in Arizona. “It was a retrofit – an existing telescope that was decommissioned and Berkeley Lab was the lead lab picked to build and install the new telescope in the existing building,” Aguilar explained.

“I was a manufacturing and quality engineer for DESI’s focal plane system – essentially the fiber optics that go into DESI’s 5,000 robotic eyes that point to different galaxies and quasars. They absorb the light that then goes to a spectrograph where scientists draw data from to study.”

Earlier this month, a stunning new documentary film entitled "5000 Eyes: Mapping the Universe with DESI" featuring DESI's recent discoveries was released to planetariums worldwide.

For Women’s History Month, Elements spoke to Aguilar recently about her work on DESI and what drew her to a career in engineering. 

Q: How did you find yourself working on the DESI project?

As Lab engineers, we are assigned to go wherever there is a need for a certain kind of engineer. My background is in manufacturing engineering and quality assurance and that's exactly what the DESI project needed. 

I helped the project get the focal plane system, the fiber assemblies, and the positioner robots from the initial build to production readiness.

I felt really excited about the project, and about having a hand in helping the world – helping humanity – understand dark energy. It's just so exciting being on the cusp of learning more and perhaps solving a piece of the puzzle by delivering an instrument that allows scientists to study the universe.

Q: What doors has the DESI project opened up for you?

The focal plane system, the positioner robots, had very small planetary gear motors that were built by a company in Japan, and we were having quality issues with these motors. So, I was able to go visit the supplier in Japan, which was my first time there, and really understand the manufacturing and the process line. I was able to communicate the challenges and issues we were experiencing with the motors and work with the supplier to solve those problems so we could get the product reliability where we needed it to be. I was able to visit a collaborating institute in Durham, England, to help solve some quality issues there as well.

Q: What inspired you to become a mechanical engineer?

I always loved math and I wanted a career where I could leverage that skill and passion as well as have a variety of work opportunities. And sure enough, I have been able to work in several different industries. Now, I'm at the Lab and I’ve done a little bit of everything and work on very unique projects.

I really enjoy mentoring engineering students. I mentor one now and she's an excellent student, and I really enjoy teaching her just the basics of engineering, what it’s like to work as a mechanical engineer, and guiding her through things like how to design parts and assemblies and then turn them into drawings. She's preparing for grad school, so I have helped her connect with other engineers and groups at the Lab, so that she can get a sense of the range of opportunities that are out there.

Aguilar at a California beach
Kitt Peak National Observatory
Aguilar loves skiing