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Sama Bilbao y León
November 9, 2023

Sama Bilbao y León: 2023 Distinguished Achievement Award recipient

Written By: Staff


Sama Bilbao y León
PhDNEEP ’99 MSNEEP ’96 (BSME ’92, MS energy technologies ’92, Polytechnic University of Madrid; MBA ’04, Averett University)
Director general, World Nuclear Association

Sama is a nuclear engineer and global leader who leverages understanding of energy, environmental policy, electricity markets and energy economics to position nuclear energy for success.

How did your experience in the College of Engineering influence your career path?

I’m much more grounded and open to new ideas and opportunities than perhaps I was before I arrived to Wisconsin. It was definitely a change of mindset. First of all, much more global, much bigger-picture. And also a point of view of service: Not just, “do your everyday work as well as possible,” but actually make things better for everybody, every day.

Which engineering professors made the greatest impact on you?

Professor Corradini, who was my advisor, has become a mentor to me throughout my entire career. He has empowered me and made available to me opportunities that perhaps I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Professors like Jake Blanchard, Doug Henderson and Robert Witt helped in their different ways to nurture me and to develop me as an engineer, and also as a person. Importantly, Professor Mohamed El-Wakil was a fabulous role model. He was a devoted teacher completely focused on and really supportive of his students, but also had this vision of service and growth for the overall engineering community.

Give us a few highlights of your professional career.

I have done a lot of twists and turns in my career. I started working in industry ensuring the safe, cost-effective and reliable operation of nuclear power plants in Virginia. I was a professor, and I had the honor and the pleasure to create and lead for a few years the nuclear engineering program at Virginia Commonwealth University. I worked in Vienna at the International Atomic Energy Agency, and then in Paris, at the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, looking at the global nuclear industry from the government point of view. World Nuclear Association represents the global nuclear industry; it’s the same work, the same challenges, the same objectives, but from a completely different point of view. This diverse career allows me to bring a very comprehensive point of view about the global nuclear enterprise.

Of what professional accomplishment are you most proud?

The creation of the nuclear engineering program at Virginia Commonwealth University. At that time, I was an engineer at Dominion, the utility in Virginia. Our team visited nuclear engineering programs trying to engage with top talent; unfortunately, not many of these young engineers stayed in Virginia. We decided to go to VCU and help them to start a new program.

What do you enjoy about your career?

I really like to be an agent of change. I am always looking for opportunities to make things better and to support people. Wherever I go, wherever I’ve been, I’ve really driven change—I think for the better every time. And I have tried to empower and inspire everybody else, to also become agents of change themselves.

What do you like best?

Winter or summer in Madison?
You know, they say that if you spend a summer in Madison, you will never leave. And that was almost true for me. I love Madison, particularly in the summer.

Fun on the Terrace or fun on Lake Mendota?
Definitely the Terrace.

Orange custard chocolate chip ice cream or anything else?
So … I don’t do ice cream. And I realize that this is not a UW thing, but if you ask me, I really like Spotted Cow.