It was love at first sight: Roshellia Goines and nuclear energy. So it’s no real surprise that a highlight of her career was building the first new nuclear power plant to come on-line in the 21st century. Now, she uses the 35 years of experience she’s picked up working at most of the nuclear power plants in the U.S. on the Department of Energy’s Waste Treatment Plant at Hanford, Washington. There, she is working to build a facility to treat the government’s most hazardous waste at a former weapons research and production plant sitting perilously near the sensitive Columbia River watershed.
She didn’t ever expect to be featured in an internationally-released film. When Dream Big, the IMAX giant-screen feature released in February 2017, she was given the chance to share a slice of her experience with millions of people.
The pride she takes in ensuring the safety of a site that was formerly a critical national defense facility is matched only by the outright fun she has ferreting out the unexpected problems that happen whenever anything complex is built. And her favorite advice to younger engineers is to get into the field where those problems emerge and learn how to prevent them.
What inspired you to pursue a career in engineering?
I originally thought I would be involved in the space program. I thought I would work for NASA. When I imagined my future, I thought I would go to work every day carrying my briefcase to NASA.
Back in those days it was the tail end of sending people to the moon and starting to look at the International Space Station. I thought I would be participating in designing those kinds of systems.
It evolved into nuclear. I got really interested in nuclear energy when I was in college. There are lots of ways to generate electricity. There was nothing more complex and complicated and cleaner-looking to me than nuclear energy.
What’s the best part of your job?
When you finish design on paper and go out into the field and watch it being built, then go and do the start-up on it. At that point you see what works and what doesn’t work. It looks good on paper, but it’s never certain it’s going to work in real life.
What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked for?
The single most fun project was the Watts Bar Unit 2 construction completion. That was the first new nuclear generation that came online in the 21st century. I was responsible for the group that helped us get our American Society of Mechanical Engineers “N” stamp, signifying Bechtel meets the high standards required to build a nuclear power plant. Getting that “N” stamp was critical in completing that plant.
The plant had also been sitting idle for 20 years so we had to address aging and obsolescence issues. We had to address any Nuclear Regulatory Commission specs to bring it up to the right codes and standards for today.
Who was your role model growing up?
Women in my family, older sisters, cousins. They showed me what it means to really encourage children to do what they want to do. There could have been plenty of people in my family to say “you want to do what?” There was nobody in my family who ever told me there was something I couldn’t do.
My all-time favorite teacher was my 7th, 8th, and 9th grade science teacher. Miss Means. To this day, when I think of her it makes me smile. She was engaging, she was always energetic.
As an adult now I’m really conscious of what I do. You never know who is looking at you and who is looking up to you. If I’m going to be someone’s role model, I want to be a good role model. I want to let them know what it is to be a good citizen and a good engineer.
What’s it like to be a movie star?
I’m not sure I would call myself a movie star, but it was a thrill of a lifetime to see myself on the big screen. The funny thing about the movie business is that many hours you invest in shooting and re-shooting a segment, that ends up being less than 30 seconds on the screen.
What advice would you give somebody who wants to thrive in your field?
Get out in the field and do a field assignment. Watch your work being built and help resolve issues when they arise. When you come back into the office, you are phenomenally better. When you’re trying to design something, you’ll remember that experience and have a good feel for what’s going to work.
Ask for help when you need it. I didn’t understand that when I was very young in my career. But I had some very senior engineers show me how to say “I need help. I can’t do all of this.”
Have those same senior engineers given you advice that you would relay to females early on in their STEM careers?
Yes, I was often told to “work hard and learn your craft and then be open to new opportunities.” Those two pieces of advice have served me extremely well over my career.