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Problem-solving and ‘giving back’: Layla Marshall finds meaningful work at ORNL, in community


Growing up in suburban Upper East Tennessee, Layla Marshall didn’t see a lot of STEM opportunities for children.

“I like encouraging young people to get involved in the kinds of things I’ve been doing in my career,” said Marshall, an electrical engineer in the Enrichment Science and Engineering Division, ESED, of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Isotope Science and Engineering Directorate. “I didn’t necessarily get the chance to start them at that age, to figure out where my interests were.”

Now Marshall counts STEM mentoring — especially school robotics teams — among her many volunteer activities.

“I like seeing the students achieve their goals,” she said. “It’s an exciting environment. It’s fun to watch them get excited about learning new things and teaching the robot to do things that they didn’t know it could do until they tried it.”

Marshall herself has a passion for learning new things. She began her career at the technology company Siemens, where she completed an internship in engineering design during her senior year of college at Georgia Institute of Technology. She went on to work there more than five years in various engineering positions, including testing hardware and firmware. During that time, she designed several programs for testing purposes.

“I have a problem-solver personality,” she said. “That’s what drew me to engineering in general.”

Between her work at Siemens and coming to ORNL, she worked briefly at Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, where she developed an automated program, and then spent a few months learning the trade of pipe organ tuning, maintenance and installation.

She began working at the lab in January 2021, drawing on her experience developing and maintaining advanced control system architecture. Her group, ESED’s Electrical, Instrumentation, and Controls Group, designs and builds Programmable Logic Controllers, or PLCs — the industrial computer that provides the “brain” that processes data and controls inputs and outputs — as well as Human Machine Interfaces, or HMIs, and interconnected sensors and actuators for gas centrifuge test stands.

“I like testing,” she said. “I gravitate to verifying and validating the control systems — the process that ensures we deliver an accurate and reliable product.”

Marshall primarily does PLC and HMI programming for Stable Isotopes applications, but she’s spent the past year pioneering the creation of Software Quality Assurance documentation for current and historical system builds supported by her group, including verification and validation documentation, user guides, programmer guides, software configuration management, software requirements, wiring diagrams, and tracking change requests and revisions to the software that the group develops.

“I like the people I work with,” Marshall said. “It doesn’t necessarily matter what I’m doing day to day. I’m on a good team.”

While working full-time at ORNL, she also completed a Master of Engineering degree in acoustics through Penn State University’s distance learning program, graduating in May 2022. That aspect of engineering — especially as related to noise control and signal processing — intrigues her, and she hopes to one day work in the field of acoustics and vibration.

In addition, she’s interested in building automation — automated thermostats, lights, “optimizing an environment for a human to be functioning in,” she said. “I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.”

Outside of work, Marshall devotes time to a different sort of acoustics: She’s been a musician with the Air National Guard Band of the South since 2016, playing oboe in its concert band and wind quintet, piano in its jazz band and alto saxophone in its marching/ceremonial band.

“I joined the band as a way to give back to my community while continuing to perform and challenge myself musically,” she said. “It’s definitely a stress reliever, a form of expression and creativity.”

She now leads a four-person recruiting team for the band, communicating with interested musicians, facilitating auditions and guiding new members through the enlistment process.

The band rehearses monthly and embarks on a two-and-a-half-week summer performance tour throughout the Southeast, playing at least once every day — everything from supplying the national anthem at sporting events to providing ceremonial music for military functions, as well as performances at festivals and full-fledged concerts at amphitheaters and auditoriums. Marshall is delighted when people she knows are among the audience, as when the band played for the July 4 celebration at World’s Fair Park two years ago. The band will play on July 3 this year at the Maryville Greenbelt Amphitheater, march in Chattanooga’s Armed Forces Day Parade May 5, and play multiple concerts in Stone Mountain, Ga., over Memorial Day weekend. All of the band’s performances are free.

“I really enjoy the patriotic portion at the end of our concerts, because it really moves people in the audience,” Marshall said. “It’s good to remember why we’re up on stage.”

Marshall also enjoys hiking, listening to music, reading, and spending time with her rescue cats, Rose and Lark, named for a favorite fantasy book series. She likes all kinds of crafts: painting gel window clings, making magnets and Christmas ornaments, sewing and knitting.

“I get my inspiration online and adapt it,” Marshall said. “My mom is very creative and can sew and craft just about anything. Whatever we needed when I was growing up, she could go up to the spare room and make it.”

All these interests lead to a lot of volunteer opportunities. Marshall volunteers with the public libraries in both Oak Ridge and Knoxville, with various missions supporting the underserved, and with animal rescue organizations — as well as with her favorite: school STEM and robotics teams. She’s mentored a couple to state championships.

“I really do enjoy community service,” she said. “I love to give back.”

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit

I have a problem-solver personality. That’s what drew me to engineering in general.

- Layla Marshall, ESED