Feature Story | 13-Jul-2023

Nazia Zakir helps keep Argonne’s staff and campus safe

Zakir is Environment, Safety and Health (ESH) senior director at Argonne National Laboratory

DOE/Argonne National Laboratory

Staff at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory are exploring new frontiers in energy storage, helping to discover new vaccines, building one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers and overhauling a world-leading particle accelerator, among many other momentous scientific endeavors.  

Nazia Zakir’s job is to make sure that all of this work is uneventful, from a safety perspective. Zakir joined Argonne as Environment, Safety and Health (ESH) senior director in September 2022. Before that, she worked on environmental health and safety initiatives at the Georgia Institute of Technology for more than two decades. Here, she talks about her new role at Argonne.  

My goal with the departments I manage is to keep morale high, develop a team spirit and promote their professional growth. — Nazia Zakir 

Q: What do you do as ESH senior director at Argonne? 

A: My job involves collaborating with all of the science and technology directorates to ensure that their research is being done safely — that they’re protected, and the rest of the Argonne community is protected. I am overseeing several worker safety and environmental programs. We have parts of campus that use radioactive materials or radiation-generating devices, so we provide safety measures and evaluations for that. The Argonne Fire Department and Office of Emergency Management provide emergency response preparedness and first responder actions. On the environmental side, we have a variety of areas around the site that need monitoring and reporting to be sure we are complying with state and federal regulations.  

Q: You worked at the Georgia Institute of Technology for over 20 years. What did you do there? 

A: I started there as a health physicist, which is a position that focuses on radiation safety, and was promoted to various positions over the years. When I left, I was a senior assistant vice president of strategy and compliance for infrastructure and sustainability. My role involved developing and implementing strategic plans and ensuring compliance for a variety of requirements. I really enjoyed my career at Georgia Tech, and I believe it prepared me very well for my role at Argonne. A lot of the work involved working closely with our researchers, understanding what their research entails, and then making sure that they can do it safely, a lot of creative problem solving. It’s a lot of conversations and relationship-building to provide the best support that we can. 

Q: What drew you to Argonne? 

A: My first job in radiation safety was at a DOE national lab, the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) in New Jersey. I was a health physics technician working at the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor, where scientists are working on fusing nuclei in atoms to produce energy. That’s where I got my love for health physics, working on such a large project with multidisciplinary teams and making sure the work is happening safely. 

When a recruiter called me about the position at Argonne, I was immediately intrigued. It really resonated with me based on my experience at PPPL and then Georgia Tech, and it was exciting to think about going back to a national lab. I like feeling that I’m part of a mission that’s helping the country. 

Q: Why is your work important? 

A: When you think about safety, it costs time and money, so it can end up being a resource issue. But if you don’t do safety right, the repercussions are huge. A large part of safety is understanding the risk it entails, and how much risk the group is willing to take. It is about understanding the psychology of how people want to work. We help them stay focused on their goals and their deliverables while also staying safe. 

Q: How do you spend your time outside work? 

A: I have three daughters, and two are in college in Atlanta. I’ve been traveling a lot back and forth to make sure I see everyone. I like to exercise, especially outdoors when I can, going on hikes and bike rides. At PPPL, I was close to New York City, then at Georgia Tech I worked in midtown Atlanta. Now that I’m at Argonne, I’m looking forward to discovering Chicago. 

Q: What have you learned over the course of your career that you bring to Argonne? 

A: I’ve learned to balance the need for researchers to feel supported in doing the work with the need to keep them safe. That can require a sense of diplomacy and picking your battles, but also knowing when you need to plant your flag and stick by it. Another thing that’s critical is understanding your own organization and who needs to be involved to make something happen. 

I also think developing and growing your staff is critical. My goal with the departments I manage is to keep morale high, develop a team spirit and promote their professional growth.  

Q: You also participate in mentoring programs. Why is that important to you? 

A: When you mentor, you’ll be able to give someone advice from an outsider perspective. But you can also learn a lot from the person you’re mentoring, just by learning about their role and challenges. It expands your understanding of how the organization functions.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.

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