Women in weapons science

An illustration of an explosion

Women in weapons science

By Brenda Fleming, Virginia Grant, Maureen Lunn, J. Weston Phippen, and Whitney Spivey| February 19, 2021

Women make up nearly 30 percent of the Laboratory’s Weapons program—and their contributions are essential to America’s national security. Meet 40 women who are working hard to keep America safe.

Percentages of women at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Women at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Woman hiking
Ambrosio enjoys hiking across the Southwest.

Gabrielle Ambrosio
R&D engineer; Materials Recovery and Recycle group

Dressed in anti-contamination coveralls, Gabrielle Ambrosio works in a glovebox in the Lab’s Plutonium Facility. As the nation’s Plutonium Center of Excellence for Research and Development, Los Alamos serves as the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) production agency for plutonium pits—triggers for nuclear weapons—and has been tasked to produce at least 30 pits per year during 2026.

Ambrosio’s job is to process the “leftovers” of pit production. “Essentially, our team takes an undesirable waste stream and uses aqueous chemistry to create a more stable product for storage and eventual reuse,” she explains. “As an engineer for the team, I help make the process as efficient as possible and keep the system running smoothly.”

Ambrosio came to Los Alamos in 2016 after completing her degree in chemical engineering at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Since then, she’s truly grown to appreciate the significance of her work’s mission. “Supporting pit production safeguards our country’s national security and promotes global stability,” she says.

For young women like herself, Ambrosio encourages confidence. “I often feel like I’m out of my depth whenever I start a new venture,” she says. “I start to doubt my skills, abilities, and accomplishments. My advice to others—and myself—is: Do not have imposter syndrome; you have earned the right to be where you are.”

A group photo
Barraza (standing at far left) at the 2019 SkillsUSA New Mexico State Competition, where she chaired the welding fabrication event.

Alexyia Barraza
R&D welding engineer; Heat Source Technologies group

Some of the things Alexyia Barraza welds in the Lab’s Plutonium Facility end up on Mars. Barraza’s group produces radioactive power sources—such as heat from the natural decay of plutonium-238— to generate electricity and keep vehicles like NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers moving.

“I see myself as only a small piece in this very complex puzzle,” Barraza says. “I come to work ready and willing, knowing that my efforts are contributing to the Laboratory’s national security mission.”

Barraza started at the Lab as a student intern in 2011. After a few years working for the Weapons program, she went back to school to earn a master’s in welding engineering and a trade degree in manual arc welding.

An active member of the American Welding Society, Barraza says the professional organization has been key to her success. “The women and men in the trade industry showed me that mastering a skill is not gender specific, but it takes hard work and dedication,” she says. “I look forward to talking to new generations of women interested in the welding industry and hopefully providing that same inspiration.”

Barraza also says her family has been supportive of her welding career. “I’m thankful for the strong foundation my parents established for me. They really enabled me to chase my dreams.”

Woman holding a baby.
Carrasco-Griego with her youngest son, Uriah, in 2016.

Anita Carrasco‑Griego
Engineer and project-program director; W88

Like many parents during the pandemic, Anita Carrasco‑Griego has learned to juggle work and home life. She’s become a part-time teacher to her two children, one who’s in kindergarten, the other in second grade. And although it’s been difficult, she prefers to consider the silver lining: She gets to see her kids more often, and in her role as project director for the W88 Warhead Program, she’s seen members of her team adapt and show resilience that maybe they didn’t know they had.

First developed in the 1970s, the W88 is one of four nuclear warhead systems overseen by the Lab. Much of Carrasco-Griego’s work involves maintaining this weapon system in case it’s ever used by the Department of Defense. A lot of the work requires classified testing activities, so everyone involved has had to find ways to be more efficient with their limited office time.

“I try my best to keep my group engaged, motivated, and productive,” Carrasco-Griego says. “I have worked with, and for, some incredible people who helped to lift me up to places I never thought were possible. Now I hope to do the same for others during my time here.”

Woman hiking.
Cheng hikes near Moab, Utah, in 2019.

Baolian Cheng
Weapons physicist; Plasma Theory and Applications group

When the United States stopped nuclear testing in the early 1990s, physicists like Baolian Cheng began certifying the nuclear stockpile using small-scale science experiments and computer simulations. “The science being done at the Lab is so fascinating,” Cheng says. “It allows you to pursue important solutions for what, why, when, where, and how that affect national security.”

Cheng earned a doctorate in theoretical astrophysics from the University of Illinois at Urbana‑Champaign and came to Los Alamos shortly thereafter. In the 27 years she’s been at the Lab, Cheng has acquired some impressive accolades: three Distinguished Performance Awards, three Defense Program Awards, four Los Alamos Achievement Awards, and one Lab Fellow prize award. Cheng was praised by Los Alamos award committee members for her “unusual creativity and breakthroughs on the theoretical understanding of a nuclear device,” and for playing a “critical role in the Laboratory’s primary physicist capabilities in maintaining the nation’s stockpile.”

The attention has resulted in offers to work at prestigious universities and other national labs. But she’s never been swayed from Los Alamos. “The Lab has a great history,” she says. “I’ve always admired this place, and it’s a wonderful environment to enjoy nature and family, while the work provides a platform for leading-edge science.”

Woman kneeling in front of a machine.
Dattelbaum prepares a target sample at a Laboratory gas gun facility.

Dana Dattelbaum
Shock physicist; Dynamic Experiments group

Dana Dattelbaum, program manager for the Dynamic Materials Properties program, divides her time between talking with scientists, planning experiments, and writing about or performing experiments of her own. “The best part of my day,” she says, “is discussing science and seeing the scientists in the program succeed.”

Dattelbaum has worked at the Lab for 21 years, since she was a graduate student. “I chose to stay because I am excited by the national defense mission of the Laboratory and the opportunity to perform experiments that are unique to the national labs.” Those experiments are unique because of the large size of the teams that work on them and the complexity of high explosives. “The types of experiments we are able to perform at the Laboratory can only be done in a few places in the United States,” she says.

Dattelbaum’s research is focused on the study of chemical reactions in the initiation and detonation of high explosives. This is important to the Lab’s mission, she says, “to ensure the balance of safety with reliable performance. Being more predictive about how explosives initiate and release energy will mean spending less time performing trial-and-error experiments, and will result in safer options for the military.”

Woman on a bench with two kids and a dog.
Dervishi-Whetham with her sons and dog in Los Alamos

Enkeleda Dervishi-Whetham
Scientist; Finishing Manufacturing Science group

Enkeleda Dervishi-Whetham came to the Lab in 2012 on a Marie Curie Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowship (now the Darleane Christian Hoffman Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowship) to work at the Lab’s Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies. “I came here for the job, not knowing a lot about Los Alamos and New Mexico, and I fell in love with the town,” she remembers. “I decided to stay on as a scientist because I love the diversity, the environment, the challenges, and working with some of the best and the brightest scientists in my field.”

Now, nine years later, DervishiWhetham is a staff scientist working in the Sigma Division, which develops materials and components using engineering and metallurgical science in support of national security. As part of the Electrochemistry and Corrosion team, Dervishi-Whetham focuses on multi-functional coatings for mission-related projects. One recent development has been a new way to coat stainless steel that is resistant to shock, wear, and radiation.

“I bring a unique perspective to solving problems and looking at them in a different way,” says Dervishi-Whetham, noting that she encourages the students who work for her to think this way as well. “When you are in the room and you are different from everyone else, it can be intimidating. But believe in yourself and embrace your differences. Use that to push forward and become successful.”

Mom and two kids laying on a porch.
Donley and her kids during a summer camp out.

Jennifer Donley
Scientist; Integrated Design and Assessment group

Jennifer Donley and her husband—each doctors of astronomy—came to Los Alamos because they could both work at the Lab. “We found the Lab’s national security mission and collaborative work environment to be both challenging and rewarding while also offering a better work-life balance than academia,” she remembers. “Los Alamos has been a great place to both work and live, and I feel so lucky that we landed here.”

Donley is a project leader for the Verification and Validation program in the Lab’s Advanced Simulation and Computing Program. “My work helps to ensure that we are using the best physics models available to model nuclear and non-nuclear experiments, and that we are prepared to meet the needs of the future nuclear stockpile,” she explains. “As long as we continue to field nuclear weapons, we need to make them as safe, secure, and reliable as possible, and I am proud to contribute to that mission.”

Donley says that throughout her nine years at the Lab, she’s leaned on her colleagues to navigate life at Los Alamos. “Do everything you can to surround yourself with supportive colleagues, mentors, and managers—both women and men,” she advises. “They can make all the difference.”

Woman with hands in a box.
Greenfield aligns equipment for an experiment in high explosives.

Margo Greenfield
Group leader and scientist; High Explosives Science and Technology group

When Margo Greenfield faces a classroom full of seen-it‑all military explosive-ordnance-disposal (EOD) technicians in the Laboratory’s Advanced Homemade Explosives Course, they listen up. These warfighters detect, identify, and dispose of improvised explosive devices and other types of bombs in hostile environments around the globe. They know that Greenfield has information that could save their lives.

Greenfield, alongside colleagues including Virginia Manner (see below), trains EOD techs to handle homemade explosives and understand the physics and chemistry behind them. By giving EOD techs information and criticalthinking skills they can apply on the battlefield, “we help make their jobs safer and easier,” she says.

Greenfield didn’t know she was interested in explosives until she came to Los Alamos as a post-baccalaureate student in 2001 and worked on experiments with conventional explosives. “I was hooked from day one,” she says.

Now, as a group leader, Greenfield leads high-explosives molecular research and development. “We make new materials,” she explains, “and we spearhead understanding their safety response. In some cases, we utilize new manufacturing technologies to put them into application.”

She also incorporates her findings into her teaching curriculum. “Information is passed along to the students,” she says. “It feels good to go home at night knowing we have helped increase the safety of our military personnel.”

portrait of a woman
Hayes works on neutrino-nucleus physics in her spare time.

Anna Hayes
Theoretical physicist; Nuclear and Particle Physics, Astrophysics, and Cosmology group

Laboratory Fellow Anna Hayes credits her confidence in a male-dominated field to growing up in a large family with one sister and three brothers. “I got used to dealing with a dinner table dominated by brothers,” she says. “You have to believe in yourself and stick to your point, if you’re confident that you are right. But don’t be afraid to be wrong.”

Hayes came to the Laboratory 30 years ago as a Director’s Postdoctoral Fellow in T-2, a group in the Laboratory’s Theoretical Division. Now, she is the T-2 group leader. “I really enjoy the very exciting and intense research atmosphere” at Los Alamos, she says. In addition to leading the group, Hayes interprets archived weapons data. “These data tell us so much about how a weapon really works,” she says. “We often see very unexpected results.” In those cases, the team has to determine an explanation for those results. “It’s very challenging,” she says, “but very fun.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, Hayes doesn’t work on site too often, which means that she hasn’t had regular access to one of her most valuable tools—her chalkboard. “I don’t have one at home,” she says, “so my waste basket is always full of pages of my scratched physics notes.”

A couple standing above a canal.
Don and Karen Haynes in Venice, Italy.

Karen Haynes
Division leader; Production Agency Quality Division

For Karen Haynes, working at Los Alamos is a family affair. “The Lab has provided us with great opportunities,” she says. “My husband, Don, works here; my daughter and son worked for the Lab through a student program while they were at Los Alamos High School, and my son is currently working in the Weapons program.”

Haynes is the division leader for Production Agency Quality, which falls under the Lab’s Weapons Production directorate. This directorate manufactures plutonium pits, detonators, heat sources, and many other weapons components. “After these components are produced, they need to be ‘sold’ to NNSA,” Haynes explains. “Our division is full of quality analysts, engineers, and inspectors with a lot of expertise. We provide the proof that products meet the exacting quality requirements necessary, such as ensuring there aren’t any defects in a product and that it will function the way it’s meant to.”

Haynes firmly believes in the Laboratory’s national security mission: ensuring the viability of America’s nuclear deterrent. “Los Alamos is an exciting place to work—for the science, the mission, and the range of opportunities available,” she says, noting that the location is pretty great, too. “Northern New Mexico is a wonderful place to live. The move to Los Alamos was a fantastic one for our family.”

Woman in front of a building.
Heberling visits Buckingham Palace in London.

Tamra Heberling
Mathematician; Theoretical Design Safety and Surety group

Tamra Heberling first learned about Los Alamos at a career fair during graduate school at Montana State University. New Mexico seemed like a good place to spend a few months, so she headed south for a summer, returned as a postdoc, and then stayed as a staff scientist.

Heberling’s team assesses the safety and surety of nuclear weapons; in other words, it works to mitigate worst-case scenarios, such as a weapon accidentally detonating. As part of this team, Heberling creates large 3D computer simulations on the Lab’s high-performance computers, then, through data analysis, machine learning, experimental design, and data fusion, she works to answer important questions related to the nuclear stockpile and global security.

“However you feel about nuclear weapons, they are our single greatest deterrent, which means that they are not going away,” she says. “Therefore, making sure that our stockpile is safe, secure, and effective is extremely important.”

“I get to work on many different projects and learn things every day,” she continues. “I’ve also been fortunate to be able to work closely with some really wonderful people.” Her advice to other women? “Don’t be afraid to take up space—you’re there for a reason.”

Woman holding a baby.
Hockaday with her first grandchild, Athena.

Mary Hockaday
Division leader; Nuclear Engineering and Nonproliferation Division

Growing up in Hawaii left Mary Hockaday without many options for becoming a technical scientist close to home. So, after the encouragement of her undergraduate advisor, she applied for jobs at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and to Los Alamos National Laboratory. “I took the high road,” she says, “and went with Los Alamos.” Hockaday spent her early career using state-of-the-art pulse power, radiography, and laser experiments to address key weapons questions; she also worked on underground nuclear testing.

Hockaday remembers being a woman in a male-dominated field was “very noticeable early in my career. I could easily go into a 100-person meeting and be the only woman in the room.” Her advice for women in similar situations is, she says, “to be yourself. You are there for your ideas, your expertise, and your perspective.”

Now the leader of the Nuclear Engineering and Nonproliferation Division, Hockaday gets to “help solve problems” that include detecting and preventing the development or use of nuclear weapons. “There is something about making the world a safe place,” Hockaday says, “that gets me out of bed every morning with a spring in my step.”

Hollis at the Valles Caldera National Preserve, just west of the Laboratory.

Rebecca Hollis
Group leader and manufacturing manager; Hazardous Waste Management group

While enrolled at the University of Alabama, Rebecca Hollis actually spent most of her graduate school years living in Los Alamos and taking courses by correspondence. “I feel like I really got my Ph.D. in chemistry from the ‘University of Los Alamos’ as much as the University of Alabama,” she jokes. “After so many years of doctoral research at Los Alamos, I was a devotee to New Mexico and the Lab in particular.”

Today, Hollis is a group leader who works with low-level and transuranic waste at the Plutonium Facility. (Low-level waste includes items that have become contaminated with radioactive material or have become radioactive through exposure to neutron radiation; “transuranic” (TRU) describes the elements that come after uranium on the periodic table—radioactive elements that aren’t naturally occurring, such as plutonium. Use of these elements results in TRU waste, which has to be disposed of in very careful and specific ways.)

As a leader, Hollis strives to be dedicated, fair, honest, and compassionate. “Although many of the discrimination issues I encountered 30 years ago aren’t as common, subtle messages to women that their presence is an afterthought still exist,” she says. “I challenge everyone to think about the biases that make women feel like they don’t belong.”

Woman mountain biking in grass.
Katko mountain biking in the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

Kim Katko
Electrical engineer; Space and Remote Sensing group

Twenty-seven years ago, Kim Katko moved from Minnesota to New Mexico to work as a summer student at Los Alamos. She immediately loved the small mountain town and her work on satellites. After she was hired full time, the Lab paid for her to earn a master’s degree, which she says paid dividends she didn’t understand until much later. “The more education you have, the more you set your own path and make a good life for yourself,” she explains. “You get to do things that you truly enjoy. You get respected for it, and you get paid for it—it’s just so good.”

Katko has taken advantage of professional development opportunities over the years and attended a transformative leadership training course in 2012. “At that point in my career, I was sometimes hesitant to speak up in meetings,” she remembers. “I learned that what I have to say and contribute is really important.”

Katko, now a team lead, spends much of her time developing new technology that is tested on small (think loaf-of-bread-sized) satellites before being used on larger satellites. The work supports the Lab’s nonproliferation mission, but for Katko it’s even more than that. “It’s satellites and space,” she says. “It’s just really fun.”

Woman riding bike on paved road.
Korzekwa tours the Lofoton Islands in Norway

Deniece Korzekwa
Engineer; Sigma Division Office

When Deniece Korzekwa retired in November 2019, she was the deputy division leader of Sigma Division, where she worked on solidification and fluid flow modeling of uranium and plutonium casting processes.

Now a guest scientist at the Lab, Korzekwa is a world-renowned expert in her field and was named Laboratory Senior Fellow in 2020. Much of her work has implications for weapons manufacturing. She has focused on “understanding the relationship between processing, properties, and performance, with the aim to improve the efficiency and understanding of manufacturing processes for plutonium and uranium,” she says.

When her husband got a job at the Lab in 1983, Korzekwa moved to Los Alamos as what she calls “a trailing spouse.” In 1986, she began work at the Lab part-time while her young children were still at home. Once her children were in middle school, she began full-time work, a plan that, she says, “allowed me to both have a career and be a mother.” Her career of 30-plus years has aided the Lab’s integral work of weapons production—work that, she says, “is vital” to the United States. “I believe we need to understand the science of manufacturing,” she says. “It allows us to be more efficient with U.S. resources and to utilize new technologies.”

Group photo.
LeDoux at the 2019 Walk for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) in Albuquerque. LeDoux is in the front row, second from the left, wearing a ball cap.

Reina LeDoux
Group leader and manufacturing manager; Prototype Fabrication Engineering group

A 19-year veteran of the Lab, Reina LeDoux is the group leader for Prototype Fabrication Engineering in the Weapons Production directorate. In this role, she supports precision machining and inspection of non-nuclear weapons components. “I work here because it’s such a unique manufacturing environment, and it allows me to support a mission that continually presents new challenges,” she says. “Not to mention, my family has lived in Northern New Mexico for many generations; I grew up here.”

Because of the sensitive nature of her group’s work, LeDoux doesn’t always have full context for components her employees are working on—but that doesn’t prevent her from being invested in the mission. “Recently, we delivered on a multi-organizational manufacturing, inspection, and assembly mission,” she remembers. “All the customer could tell us afterward was, ‘you’re helping make the world a safer place.’ That’s what makes the work important to me.”

LeDoux’s advice to other women in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) fields is to “find your voice and contribute to the solution of the problem,” she says. “And as a woman in STEM, take the time to support, guide, and encourage other women.”

woman and man with two girls.
Lopez-Barlow with her husband and daughters.

Jacquelyn Lopez-Barlow
Program manager; Nuclear Security Production Integration group

From a young age, Jacquelyn Lopez-Barlow has been fascinated by the unknown. So, it’s no surprise that she’s found a job that allows her to look for past and present signs of life on Mars. Lopez-Barlow leads a team that designs and manufactures radioisotope heat sources—small blocks of plutonium that provide electricity in deep space—for NASA. “When we launched the Mars Perseverance rover in July 2020, it was emotional, and I was so proud to say that I was a part of it,” Lopez Barlow remembers.

Lopez-Barlow has worked at the Lab since 2003, when she secured an internship while studying chemical engineering at the University of New Mexico. Staying on at the Lab after she graduated was an easy decision, she says, because she was excited to further her skills at the Lab’s Plutonium Facility (PF-4). Working at PF-4 opened other doors, such as the opportunity to work on heat sources destined for Mars.

“To solve our nation’s challenges, we need to have a diverse workforce that can bring forward innovative ideas and make them realities,” she says. “It’s our job to find solutions, and the more talented women we have, the better because women bring a unique approach to solving problems at the Lab.”

woman and two men in a lab.
Virginia Manner (left) and coworkers Nicholas Lease, Maria Campbell, and Nathan Burnside fire detonators in a control room.

Virginia Manner
Scientist; High Explosives and Technology group

Los Alamos County’s Olympic-sized indoor pool was closed for part of the coronavirus pandemic. But for Virginia Manner, not swimming wasn’t an option. So, she regularly hiked nearly two miles for an early morning swim in the area’s only large body of water—a murky reservoir at the bottom of a steep canyon.

“Swimming there probably summarizes the challenges of maintaining some sanity during this time,” she says. But although times have been trying, they’ve also been strangely productive. Some days, Manner designs, sets up, or writes about explosives experiments. Other days, as the Energetic Materials Synthesis team leader, she ensures that her team members—other scientists, technicians, and technologists—have what they need to interpret experimental results. “Most of the work I do is very challenging and engaging, and it allows for creativity and collaborative problem solving,” she says. “I really enjoy being able to solve problems that contribute to the safety of other people.”

Manner, who has been at Los Alamos since 2009, is quick to give her colleagues credit for fostering a productive and accepting work environment. “I am lucky to be in an environment where I feel I am judged by my accomplishments,” she says. “Everything significant I’ve done here has been due to the incredible group of people who support me and work hard to turn our ideas into reality.”

woman and two boys with hot air balloons in sky
Mares and her sons at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

Danielle Mares
Engineer; Dynamic Structure Design and Engineering group

Los Alamos native Danielle Mares began working at the Lab 21 years ago as a high school intern. The experience solidified her decision to study engineering in college. But in her classes, she was often the only woman. “That these fields are male dominated became very apparent to me early on,” she says. “I learned to be persistent, to be assertive, and to come out of my shell to prove myself,” Mares says. “My advice to women is: Follow your dream, and don’t let anyone define your potential.”

Mares is now an R&D engineer for the Lab’s hydro program. During a hydrotest, scientists detonate a mock nuclear device inside a six-foot spherical, two-layer confinement vessel. “This work enables the Laboratory to ensure the operability of the weapons needed for our stockpile,” Mares says.

As a vessel engineer, Mares focuses on preparing these behemoth containers for experiments. The cylindrical outer vessel provides mechanical support to the spherical inner vessel, which is made from 6.25-centimeter-thick steel. The inner vessel, which contains overlapping aluminum shielding plates around the device to protect the vessel from shrapnel damage, can handle up to 18 kilograms of explosives and can be cleaned up and reused for other hydrotests.

woman standing on balcony
Martinez enjoys the view in Denver, Colorado.

Analisa Martinez
Scientist; Materials Recovery and Recycle group

Analisa Martinez’s uncle has worked at Los Alamos since 1997. “My uncle showed me that the Laboratory is a place to learn and grow with mission-driven, like-minded people,” she says. “I love that we are the only place in the nation that’s capable of doing what we do.”

At the Lab’s Plutonium Facility, Martinez is responsible for hazardous waste that is a byproduct of the Lab’s current and previous weapons production work. The waste is stored in high-security vaults until it can be moved, recycled, or safely disposed of. “I plan what we’ll remove from the vault and what we’ll do with it,” Martinez explains. “Some items need to be repackaged in new containers, others discarded or consolidated.”

Throughout her eight years at the Laboratory, Martinez has always felt encouraged by her colleagues, and she believes Los Alamos is a great place for women to succeed. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of our nation’s greatest minds, both men and women,” she says. “That’s not to say that I haven’t been in meetings where I’m the only woman in the room. My advice for those women is to always speak your mind, and speak it with confidence.”

Woman and four kids
McLaughlin with her children in Quebec, Canada.

Stacy McLaughlin
Division leader; Actinide Material Processing and Power Division

A mom of four, Stacy McLaughlin often uses her parenting skills at work: She communicates clearly, doesn’t back down, and strives to be compassionate and understanding. “Women inherently bring a different perspective to an environment, and that variety of perspectives is extremely important for innovation,” she says. “Women should never be afraid to speak up.”

McLaughlin, who started at the Laboratory as a student in 1994, leads a team of technical staff across three groups in the Actinide Materials Processing and Power Division. The division is responsible for meeting the production goals of several different missions, including NASA’s space exploration programs, various defense programs, the Advanced Recovery and Integrated Extraction System (ARIES) for nuclear non-proliferation, and the Material Recovery and Recycle program to enable the future of the Laboratory’s Plutonium Facility by processing and disposing of legacy waste residue.

Most of McLaughlin’s employees have worked on site during the pandemic due to the essential, hands-on nature of their work. “The products that AMPP produces are one-of-a-kind; no one across the Department of Energy complex can produce what we produce,” she says. “I love coming in to work every day and knowing I’m making a difference in our nation’s security.”

woman on a rock
Mohr atop a cliff in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Hannah Mohr
Engineer; Space Electronics and Signal Processing group

Like cell phones and personal computers, high-tech satellites are becoming smaller and smaller. CubeSats, inexpensive satellites often the size a grapefruit, allow anyone—from researchers at national laboratories to middle‑school students—the opportunity to put satellites into orbit.

Research and design engineer Hannah Mohr, of the Lab’s Agile Space team, writes the software that controls the orientation and automates the operations of these tiny satellites. “The Lab has a long history of developing space technology to help keep our nation safe,” Mohr says. “Continuing to build on those capabilities is important as we adapt to the changes in the way we can use satellites.”

Mohr was one of the first recipients of the Lab’s Athena Engineering Scholarship, which supports young women in the engineering sciences and funded her graduate work. In 2017, she earned a staff position, and her work has been focused skyward ever since. “I’ve realized this was the kind of place where I could spend my entire career learning new things,” Mohr says of developing cutting-edge technology that keeps our nation on the forefront of satellite science. “I’m contributing to a mission that truly matters.”

woman and kid running
Mosby and her son run to the finish of the NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) Trail Race in Colorado.

Michelle Mosby
Scientist; Theoretical Design Safety and Surety group

“Nuclear deterrence should be important to everyone,” says Michelle Mosby, a scientist in the Lab’s X Theoretical Design Division. “The existence of nuclear weapons has global implications, and as a country in possession of that technology, it is important to steward it to the best of our ability.”

Mosby uses multi-physics simulations to better understand how a nuclear weapon will perform. “The work I do underpins our nuclear deterrent,” she explains, noting that this mission-focused work is what first attracted her to Los Alamos. “I learned during graduate school that I wanted to see a direct purpose for my work, rather than simply researching to better understand the field,” she says. “At the Lab, that connection is easy to see, and I know that my contributions make a difference to national security.”

Her contributions also affect future scientists. “A few years ago, I had the opportunity to be the designer on an integral experiment in which all of the leads were women,” she remembers. “I hope that as a new generation of scientists is growing up, seeing women in STEM leadership roles is a more common sight. By changing attitudes at an early age, we can hope to inspire more girls to enter and stay in STEM fields.”

woman and dog in the woods
Oertel and her Alaskan malamute, Sierra.

Rebecca Oertel
Explosives technician; Focused Experiments group

Before Rebecca Oertel became an explosives technician at the Lab last year, she was a machinist, a scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey, an ecologist at Bandelier National Monument, and a wildland helitack firefighter—one of the people dropped from helicopters into the woods to battle forest fires.

These days, Oertel makes sure everything runs smoothly and safely when the Lab needs to explode something. She assembles the explosive shots. She ensures all cameras and lasers are running properly, and that all personnel are safely in the bunker. Then she starts the countdown. “These experiments give the Laboratory crucial information to better understand the effects of extreme conditions on different materials, and how those materials can be applied to maintaining our nuclear weapon capabilities,” Oertel says.

Her path to the Lab might have been a bit more circuitous (and adventurous) than most but Oertel has deep roots in Los Alamos. Her father came to the Lab in 1943 to work on the Manhattan Project. Her mother arrived in 1950 and worked as a secretary for Director Norris Bradbury. Her advice to anyone who wants to work at the Lab is not to worry about what others think. “Believe in yourself,” she says, “stay humble, surround yourself with supportive, positive people, and always look forward to your next successes.”

Woman driving truck.
Reeves behind the wheel of the “rock crawler.”

Alyssa Reeves
R&D engineer; Prototype Fabrication Engineering group

Alyssa Reeves met her husband in auto shop class at Los Alamos High School. The couple has been working on cars together ever since. Their current project is their “rock crawler”—a burly 1985 Toyota 4-Runner that can make its way over any terrain.

Nearly 13 years ago, Reeves’ passion for tinkering landed her a job at the Lab. “I have had, and continue to have, opportunities to do a lot of different and interesting tasks as an engineer at the Lab,” she says. “And the location provides my family with a safe place to live, while keeping us close to our favorite outdoor activities—skiing, camping, and four-wheeling.” Reeves is part of an inspection team in the Prototype Fabrication Division, which manufactures non-nuclear components for weapons systems. “Our team performs a critical role in quality assurance— making sure the products we manufacture meet all safety and security requirements and other specifications,” she explains.

Reeves has continued to work on site during the pandemic and says her team is most effective when her team members “realize our differences make us strong. I urge women to remember that they won’t find their strength and success by comparing themselves to men.”

Brandy Royer
Group leader and R&D manager; Dynamic Structure Design, Engineering, and Vessel Operations

Under normal circumstances Brandy Royer likes to think of her group leader job as “steering the ship and ensuring the group has what it needs.” Her group is responsible for the six-foot spherical confinement vessels used in hydrodynamic experiments at the Lab’s Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility. In a DARHT experiment, scientists detonate a mock nuclear weapon inside a confinement vessel and take radiographs of the resulting implosion. The heat and pressure created by the implosion cause the weapon’s non-nuclear core to melt and flow like water. This change from solid metal to liquid is why the experiment is considered “hydrodynamic” and often called a “hydrotest.”

Royer’s group, founded in February 2019, is relatively new to the Lab. Usually, the group members interact in person frequently, but that’s changed during the pandemic. “In a group like ours that’s growing and learning from each other, the lack of face-to-face interactions means that we must take extra steps to make sure we coordinate that time with each other.”

So, like a lot of people, Royer and her group are constantly meeting via Webex. “Our mission and focus haven’t changed,” she says. “We’ve adapted because our work is critical for both the Laboratory and the nation.”

Plesko participates in the 1997 Earthwatch Student Challenge Awards Program. Plesko is in the front center.

Cathy Plesko
Scientist, Materials and Physical Data group

In 1997, high-school student Cathy Plesko participated in the Earthwatch Student Challenge Awards Program, which allowed her to shadow a Los Alamos scientist for two weeks. “I got to work on an observational astronomy project,” Plesko remembers.

That was more than two decades ago. “I kept coming back to Los Alamos,” she says, “because the people I want to work with are here, working on questions that matter to the world.” She adds that “the mountains and green chile are pretty great, too.”

Plesko is the Program Manager for the Advanced Simulation and Computing, Verification and Validation Program. Her team uses supercomputers to model what happens if an asteroid or comet hits the Earth. She also uses supercomputers to help determine how humans might stop that from happening. “We use computer models to study ways of pushing near-Earth objects (NEOs) off course, such as smashing a spacecraft into them or detonating a nuclear device from several hundred yards away,” Plesko says. “We feed the best estimates of an NEO’s shape, composition, mass, and strength into our computer models and predict what would happen in each scenario.”

Plesko says she feels lucky “to be able to do scientific research and apply it to questions of national security and planetary defense and to work with so many brilliant, generous people who are happy to share their own knowledge and insights.”

man and woman with two kids
Salazar-Martinez with her husband and sons at Disneyland in 2019.

Rolanda Salazar-Martinez
Group leader and manufacturing manager; Pit Technologies—Plutonium Machining group

“Since the pandemic, my workload has tripled,” says Rolanda Salazar-Martinez. “My husband is a healthcare provider who isn’t able to work from home, so I’ve stayed home with our two boys.”

In addition to keeping her elementary schoolers on track with their remote schooling, Salazar-Martinez also manages 67 employees—mostly highly detail-oriented machinists and engineers— who contribute to making plutonium pits (nuclear weapon triggers). Los Alamos demonstrated pit production in 2007 and has been tasked by the NNSA to produce at least 30 pits per year by 2026 to ensure the future of America’s nuclear stockpile.

“Working these past 18 years at the Lab, I’ve come to understand and appreciate the work we do for the safety of our nation,” Salazar Martinez says. “The men and women in our military depend on what our team provides to protect our freedoms. I have family members in the military, and it’s comforting to know they have all they need to keep our country safe.”

Although women managers are not uncommon in the directorate where Salazar-Martinez works, they are certainly not the majority. “My advice to women in the field is to speak up,” she says. “And find a mentor. My mentor challenged me to ‘sit at the table’—to be a participant, not a spectator, and to trust my worth.”

family outside
Schake (second from left) tours the Isle of Skye, Scotland.

Ann Schake
Scientist; Advanced Recovery and Integrated Extraction System program

For more than 30 years, Ann Schake has always felt supported by her Los Alamos colleagues. “There are many opportunities for all people to find interesting work and to succeed at Los Alamos National Laboratory,” she says, noting that a good mentor can help the process. “There are mentors in every field and at every level, both men and women, who are willing to guide you and help you succeed.” Schake’s success has taken her from a postdoctoral position in inorganic chemistry to a staff member position in the Nuclear Materials Technology Division to a team leader position in the Nuclear and Radiochemistry group to her current role in the Advanced Recovery and Integrated Extraction System (ARIES) program.

ARIES helps the nation meet its nonproliferation commitments by preparing surplus weapons-grade plutonium for final disposition by converting it to less-hazardous plutonium oxide and moving it into long-term storage. As a senior scientist on the ARIES characterization team, Schake helps develop new spectroscopic tools that measure contaminants in ARIES’ plutonium oxide.

“Maintaining the nuclear deterrent is extremely critical for national and global security,” she says. “Hand in hand with that work comes securing materials that are removed from the stockpile that represent a proliferation risk.”

woman in stadium
Schultz attends a Chicago Bears football game.

Kim Schultz
Physicist; DARHT Experiments and Diagnostics group

Kim Schultz came to Los Alamos in 2018 as a postdoctoral fellow, and she took a permanent position at the Lab’s DARHT facility the following year. “DARHT—the world’s most powerful x-ray machine—provides the opportunity to perform basic science experiments in addition to its primary purpose in the stockpile stewardship program,” she says. “It is really a unique place to work.”

Schultz develops, installs, and maintains current diagnostics (measurements) for experiments. Her specialty is optical diagnostics. “I use lasers and fiber optic equipment every day,” she says. Schultz also helps analyze data that is gathered from all the diagnostics. This data validates the computer codes used to help certify America’s nuclear stockpile. “I’m proud that my work allows the Lab to affirm that our stockpile behaves as intended and continues to be safe and secure,” she says.

But because of the pandemic, Schultz’s work hasn’t been quite so hands-on lately. “I am an experimentalist and conduct most of my work with a team, with some programming and analysis work,” she says. “I have now shifted to learning more programming languages and developing diagnostics to use in the future.”

Scott with her extended family at a Buffalo Sabres NHL game.

Kimberly Scott
Program director and astrophysicist; Office of Experimental Sciences

When Kimberly Scott was considering a job at the Laboratory 21 years ago, she was interested in how the Laboratory encouraged work-life balance because she was about to start a family. She also says that “the scientific overlap between my research field of astrophysics and the Laboratory’s mission was a real attractor.” Astrophysics considers the nuclear processes in stars; at Los Alamos, Scott could consider the nuclear processes in weapons.

Scott directs the Lab’s Experimental Sciences Program, which develops science and technology to maintain the current stockpile, enable the stockpile of the future, and mitigate threats to the stockpile. “Our country’s nuclear deterrent has been effective at ensuring our defense and those of our allies for more than seven decades,” she says. “Los Alamos helps to ensure that will continue to be the case.”

Scott advises young women to “pursue work in fields that interest you. Be tenacious and you’ll achieve your goals. Don’t compare yourself to others. Lead from your own strengths. Don’t be afraid that you don’t have what it takes—you do.”

woman in a yoga pose.
Scovel is a certified yoga instructor.

Christina Scovel
Scientist; Theoretical Design Primary Physics group

Christina Scovel comes from a family that has taken its patriotic duty seriously for more than two centuries. “I am the 12th generation of my family in the United States, and at least one family member in each generation has served the nation, mostly through the armed services,” Scovel says. “I did not join an armed service but instead choose to serve my nation through the Laboratory.”

Scovel moved to New Mexico from Seattle and has worked at Los Alamos for 21 years. She’s part of the Primary Physics and Design group, which designs nuclear weapon primaries (the first, or fission, stage of a weapon) and assesses their performance and reliability. “Maintaining the viability of our nuclear deterrent is the best way I can support our national security,” she says.

Over the years, Scovel has “felt nothing but support and respect” from her colleagues, and she encourages young women going into STEM fields to “use your voice when you need to, and remember that your voice is just as important as anyone else’s.” Scovel notes that being vocal is especially important during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Open and over-communication with both colleagues and family members is the only way to maintain any semblance of balance” during this difficult time.

A couple hiking.
Shoemaker and her husband hike in New Zealand.

Jordan Shoemaker
Engineer, Detonator Production Division Office

Detonators are small devices that ignite the high explosives surrounding the core of a nuclear weapon. The resulting explosion compresses the core, which creates nuclear yield. Many detonators are required per weapon, and many of those detonators are designed and produced at Los Alamos. Jordan Shoemaker is among the people responsible for their production. “This involves coordinating engineering, production, design, and support teams to ensure producibility of next-generation detonators,” she explains. “I have a direct impact on nuclear deterrence for our current and future generations.”

Weapons Production, the directorate in which Shoemaker works, is just 27 percent female. “I have been mistaken as an intern on projects where I was the subject matter expert,” she recalls. “I have been told both that I sound like a cheerleader and that I am too bossy and direct.” Shoemaker is quick to note that the majority of her experiences are much more positive. “Continue to exhibit excellence in your field. The quality of your work will start to speak for itself and combat the hidden bias that still pervades our work.”

Laura Smilowitz
Scientist; Physical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy

Many explosives Laura Smilowitz works with have been around for decades; she knows a lot about them. For example, the explosives used in some detonators provide such consistent results that their accuracy is measured down to 100 nanoseconds. (One nanosecond is a billionth of a second, so that’s pretty accurate.)

But even then, Smilowitz says “gaps in our understanding” exist, and she’s dedicated her 25-year career to closing them. The Lab Fellow and member of the Thermal Kinetics and Dynamics team specializes in addressing questions about what might happen in unintended circumstances, so that if an accident occurs, the Laboratory can provide guidance on how to respond. “Something like detonators may provide extremely precise timing,” Smilowitz says. “However, the fundamental mechanisms of how detonators function is still not totally understood, so my work addresses questions involving explosives safety and surety.”

At times, the world of explosives can sometimes feel like a boy’s club. Early in her career, Smilowitz found that with her soft voice, she was often talked over in meetings. So like any good scientist, she experimented with how to get her point across. “One technique I’ve found is to stand up and draw things on the board to make sure I’m heard and understood.”

Sprinkle at the Angel Fire Bike Park in New Mexico.

Bethany Sprinkle
Engineer; Experimental Device Engineering and Assembly

Bethany Sprinkle likes motorcycles. She rides dirt bikes and sport bikes, and she likes to take them apart to see how they work. So it was important that her job at the Lab was not only intellectually fulfilling but also gave her a chance to work with her hands.

Today, Sprinkle helps systems engineers and physicists take their thoughts (mostly on explosives— not motorcycles) from design to product. She’s involved in nearly every step of the process: from design reviews of drawings to assembling experiments, which has fulfilled her need for tactile work. “The Lab has provided me the incredible opportunity to take part in a wide variety of tasks,” she says.

As for advice, Sprinkle says, “I attribute my success largely to the fact that I have never thought of myself as a ‘woman,’ but rather as an engineer with a job to do. Whether you are a man or a woman, peers respect someone who speaks up with conciseness and confidence.”

Srinivasan and her son at Disney World in 2019.

Gowri Srinivasan
Group leader and R&D manager; Verification and Analysis group

Before Gowri Srinivasan came to the Lab 16 years ago, she worked in Silicon Valley as a software engineer, an occupation that, especially at the time, felt sometimes uncomfortably dominated by men. “I don’t know of any of my women friends in STEM who haven’t experienced either subtle or overt acts of gender discrimination at some stage of their lives,” she says.

Now as a group leader in the X Computational Physics Division, which is responsible for the computer codes and simulation tools used for stockpile stewardship, she’s in a unique position to mentor and guide young women so that they don’t face similar obstacles. “Group leaders are the first line of defense for the Lab’s success, since we are directly in contact on a daily basis with the staff that enable us to accomplish our goals,” Srinivasan says.

Some of her time is devoted to administrative work, ensuring the group has what it needs to succeed. But the more exciting part, she says, is helping people with their own career development. Srinivasan has had several influential mentors herself and recognizes how valuable these relationships can be. “If you have even one person who is your cheerleader and an inspirational influence, latch on to that because it makes a big difference,” she says.

woman hiking
Vigil hikes to Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico.

Anna Maria Vigil
Engineer; Detonator Production Division Office

Anna Maria Vigil was born and raised in Northern New Mexico but left after college. Fourteen years later, she returned to be closer to family—and to pursue a career at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Vigil is part of the Continuous Improvement Team within Detonator Production, the division that makes the tiny devices that jumpstart a nuclear weapon. “My focus is on driving operational efficiencies, standardization, and infrastructure project activities,” she explains. Her work is dynamic and varied; some days she’s creating computer-aided design layout options to maximize space or improve process flows; other days she’s managing infrastructure projects.

“My goal is to promote and apply continuous improvement methods to benefit production, quality, and safety within the organization, which is critical to national security,” she says. “Being a tiny, tiny part of something that makes such a difference on a larger scale— national security—is extremely fascinating, rewarding, and, of course, pretty cool.”

Vigil says her colleagues are all part of making that difference. “I work with great people who are willing to share their knowledge and expertise,” she says. “I have been impressed by their willingness to support thinking outside the box, their consideration of all ideas, and their encouragement of continuous learning and improvement.”

woman riding a horse
Worl rides her horse, Simon, who she has owned and trained since he was a foal.

Laura Worl
Program manager; Pit Production Mission Integration

Laura Worl grew up in Indiana, went to school in Delaware and North Carolina, and eventually took a postdoctoral position at Los Alamos so that she could live in a small mountain town and explore the Southwest.

Thirty-one years later, she’s still here. “I never imagined that my big move from Indiana for a short-term position would lead to a 30-plus-year career of diverse and fascinating opportunities at the Lab,” she says. “I have also raised my three children in Los Alamos and have been able to enjoy beautiful New Mexico and our special community throughout my career. The balance of work and home life is embraced at Los Alamos and has allowed me to pursue both a scientific career and have flexibility with my family and personal interests.”

Currently, Worl’s work includes establishing safe long-term storage for plutonium materials and providing opportunities to minimize plutonium waste. “My work is tied directly to key capabilities for our plutonium pit production mission,” she explains, noting that the mission considers not just national but also global perspectives. “I was honored to participate in a NATO leadership training session in early 2020, and the positive impact that our mission has on the NATO countries is tremendous.”

woman cross-country skiing with two dogs.
Young cross-country skis with her dogs near Taos, New Mexico.

Jennifer Young
Weapons engineer; Weapons Engineering Program Office

As the acting director of the Lab’s Weapons Engineering Program Office, Jennifer Young works with NNSA to report advancements and estimate costs for the Lab’s stockpile stewardship program. Since the pandemic, Young says, “With most of my work being unclassified, I spend a lot of time on the phone and on Webex.”

Young came to the Lab 22 years ago, when she was offered a Director’s Postdoctoral Fellowship to work with Gordon Jarvinen, a former director of the Lab’s Seaborg Institute, which integrates physics, chemical, metallurgical, and nuclear research on plutonium. When her fellowship ended, Young decided to stay at the Lab because she “found the work fascinating, the mission compelling, the possibilities unlimited, and living in this part of the country is a dream come true.”

Young says she’s been lucky to have exceptional bosses at the Lab who believe in her. But that wasn’t always the case. Before she came to Los Alamos, Young worked at a petrochemical plant in Houston and learned that succeeding in STEM as a woman meant she often had to be exceptional to be viewed as competent. “My advice to women is to develop a support network to help you through the trying times that we all encounter,” she says. “And remember to get back up, dust yourself off, and keep going.”

woman biking on a driveway
Zoldi mountain bikes in Northern New Mexico.

Cindy Zoldi
Weapons physicist; Nuclear Threat Assessment group

Since arriving at the Laboratory in 1998, Cindy Zoldi’s work has been in national security, with a focus on nuclear weapons. She worked in the B61 program for ten years before leading the Capabilities for Nuclear Intelligence program, which produces science and technology used by the intelligence community to determine the safety and capability of foreign nuclear weapons.

In 2019, Zoldi stepped down as CNI program manager and returned to technical work, where, she says, “I felt I could have more of an impact.” Zoldi works in stockpile stewardship, using computer models to simulate the designs of nuclear weapons no longer in the stockpile to better understand possible relevant foreign designs. “My current work,” she says, “extends my weapons design expertise to perform global security assessments of foreign capabilities to assess adversary threats and guide future stockpile needs.”

Zoldi also supports the Intelligence and Emerging Threats Program, which assesses “foreign threats to our nuclear enterprise and identifies what future capabilities may be necessary to maintain deterrence.”

“The world’s nuclear landscape continues to evolve,” she continues. “We must be ready to deter other nations and show the resiliency of our nuclear stockpile to adversary threats. My work at the Laboratory allows me to do my part to support the safety and security of the nation.”