Federico Gallo came to Oak Ridge National Laboratory for a career change. He found challenging work — with a side of compassion.
Gallo had toiled for a decade in the oil and gas industry, with long workweeks and lots of travel. In late 2020, he was ready to find something with better work-life balance, ideally making use of his aerospace experience and advanced degree.
He wasn’t limiting his job search to the Houston, Texas, area, where he lived with his wife, Amanda, and their five children. Still, ORNL wasn’t on his radar. From what little he knew about the national laboratory, he believed its nuclear focus wouldn’t be a good fit for his skills.
All that changed when he connected with Elvis Dominguez-Ontiveros, a senior mechanical engineer in the Neutron Sciences Directorate, on the social networking site LinkedIn. In a few conversations, Dominguez-Ontiveros persuaded Gallo that his expertise in fluid-structure interaction and multiphase flow would be a good fit for a number of positions open at ORNL.
“He told me to apply for certain positions, but when I started looking on the ORNL website, I found a lot more opportunities where my technical skills were a good fit,” Gallo said. “I applied to a few more jobs.”
Gallo first interviewed for an entry-level position with the Isotope Science and Engineering Directorate’s Enrichment Science and Engineering Division, then was invited back to interview for a higher-level position based on his experience and expertise.
At the same time, he was interviewing for positions with other companies and ended up with other offers, including from two private aerospace companies and a green energy company, before he accepted a position with ORNL.
Despite a challenging housing market, Gallo and his wife were able to find a house in West Knoxville, and they put their Houston house on the market. Gallo started working at ORNL in April 2021, but Amanda and the children stayed behind in the Texas to ready for the move.
It was when Gallo was about a month into his new ORNL position that Amanda, still in Texas, had a medical emergency. A previously undiagnosed case of ulcerative colitis made her seriously ill, spiking her heart rate and putting her in the hospital.
With his wife in intensive care and rapidly losing blood, Gallo called his then-supervisor, Jason Cook.
“I told him, ‘This has happened, and I don’t know where this is going, but I need time,’” Gallo remembered. “I said, ‘I understand if you need to let me go.’”
Cook told Gallo, who was initially hired to work on the Domestic Uranium Enrichment Centrifuge Experiment Project, or DUECE, that he could work remotely solving some issues with the Material Plasma Exposure eXperiment, or MPEX. He didn’t yet have the clearance he needed to work on DUECE anyway.
“Federico was hired because of his extensive testing experience gained while working at Exxon,” Cook said. “The hiring team thought that he could bring a fresh perspective on testing to our group. While waiting on his clearance, and having little experience in analysis, he enthusiastically accepted work analyzing several components of the MPEX invessel components. He quickly came up to speed on what was needed to complete the analysis, which helped push the MPEX program forward.”
Amanda spent three months in the hospital, undergoing multiple blood transfusions and medical interventions. Ultimately, she ended up having her colon removed. Her parents, who live in Austin, helped care for the children while Gallo worked from the hospital to be at her side.
The help from family and friends and the flexibility to work remotely made a terrible, trying time easier, Gallo said. In particular, he felt uplifted by the number of his new East Tennessee coworkers who made a point to tell him they were thinking of and praying for his family.
“I had people I barely knew tell me that,” he said. “It is just moving. I used that strength to make it through to the next step.”
After surgery, Amanda’s recovery was long, with setbacks along the way. It was December before the family could move to Knoxville.
“And that whole time, there was not a moment where I felt like anyone was pressuring me,” Gallo said.
He came back to campus ready to prove himself.
“I’m grateful to this place,” Gallo said. “I wanted to show, ‘I’ll give you my best. You preemptively gave me this grace, and I owe you.’”
In January, Gallo began work in the Machine Dynamics Group supporting DUECE.
“He has accomplished several difficult tasks within the DUECE program and has fostered a good reputation among his peers,” Cook said.
In fact, Gallo’s coworkers encouraged him to apply for the open group leader position.
“I have never seen a place where people come to you and say, ‘Hey, we want you to be our group leader,’” Gallo said. “I would never have applied otherwise, because I had only been on board two months.”
Group member Blake Van Hoy was among those encouraging Gallo to apply. He said Gallo’s flexibility and communication skills make him an effective leader.
“He’s always talking, so it was easy to figure out what he was thinking or trying to accomplish,” Van Hoy said. “Federico is one of the few individuals who can do the math and theory but also enjoys the hands-on challenges of testing components in a lab setting. While (the job of group leader) presents its own unique challenges, he pursues those with the same enthusiasm that he brings to the job every day.”
Gallo said he’s been able to learn a lot about effective communication by studying colleagues at the lab who excel in it.
“I’m really happy about what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m not necessarily being the technical expert — there are people a lot brighter than I am — but I’m helping other people achieve their best.”
Meanwhile, Amanda and their children, who range in age from 2 to 12, have settled in, finding schools, extracurricular activities and family time on the weekends to hike, bike and attend local festivals and events. The climate is more agreeable than Houston’s hot summers, and the family likes being able to make plans to visit attractions or attend events without the press of thousands of other attendees.
In addition, Gallo builds furniture for a hobby and shares his love of woodworking — a skill he learned by building a house with his father over seven years when he was a youth — with his own children.
“We make it fun, but there’s a sense of empowerment they need to learn if they want to grow,” he said. “You can only gain that self-confidence by doing.”
That time spent with family is as sacred to Gallo as the hours he devotes to his work — a welcome change from the high-pressure environment he previously faced.
“I think in industry, there is this 47-hours-a-week-minimum expectation, no matter how efficient you are at accomplishing your tasks,” he said. “Here, I do work longer hours sometimes when things need to get done, but because of the flexibility our business quarter schedule allows, I can then work fewer hours another time. … If you’re in my group and I see you working overtime, I’m not going to send you home, but I’m going to make sure it’s your choice. You won’t feel that pressure from me or anyone.”
A native of Italy, Gallo is looking forward to being able to take some time off this year for a family trip back — their first since before the COVID-19 pandemic. His parents and sister, who still live in Italy, visited Knoxville during the holidays.
Gallo came to the United States as a college exchange student, never intending to stay permanently. But at the University of Texas in Austin, he and Amanda met and fell in love. A research project on bulletproof composite plates led to sponsorship for his master’s and doctoral degrees, and ultimately to a career path in the oil and gas industry.
Now that path, which carried him through his early career, has brought him to a place of challenging work and contentment. At ORNL, Gallo enjoys problem-solving and working on meaningful projects — but even more, he enjoys his colleagues.
“Times of trial can be difficult, but they really make you grateful for the smallest things, and they make you connect with people,” Gallo said. “A place like this, that allows you to ask for help, to have that vulnerability, really is a benefit to you and everyone else. These kinds of relationships couldn’t grow otherwise.”