GREATER TOGETHER: A Visit with the Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory

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GREATER TOGETHER: A Visit with the Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory


Nicholas Huntoon, Zone 16 AZC & SPS Member, University of New Mexico

Driving north out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, I wasn’t surprised to feel anxious. I was on my way to meet the new director of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), Dr. Thomas Mason. As an undergraduate physics major I had never interviewed anyone before, but I was looking forward to finding out about the lab and its plans for the future. 

LANL was founded during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project, bringing together many famed scientists to work on the design of nuclear weapons. Since then, “Los Alamos has changed the world many times,” Dr. Mason told me.

After the Manhattan Project, because of the lab’s work on how radiation affects humans, its expertise in cell biology and genetics was key to developing the technologies for the Human Genome Project—a project that initially faced skepticism because DNA sequencing technologies were slow and costly.

Today, LANL focuses on national security challenges, including nuclear weapons stewardship, energy security, and other threats. The capacity to work on projects that require “big science,” like the Manhattan Project, the Human Genome Project, and cybersecurity, is unique to multidisciplinary environments. “To do this science we need scientists across a range of disciplines,” the director shared.

Though he became director of LANL just last year, Dr. Mason spent 10 years as the director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and was most recently senior vice president for Battelle, a nonprofit company that helps manage national labs. He drew on these experiences to create an agenda for LANL over the coming decade. Nicholas Huntoon (left) interviews LANL director Thomas Mason. Photo courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

One of the lab’s major challenges is to certify the safety and security of the nuclear stockpile while combating nuclear proliferation. The United States has participated in a nuclear testing moratorium since 1992. This allows tests occurring in other places to be more easily detected but complicates the process of predicting the behavior of the existing stockpile. As components age, changes in the stockpile accelerate. Los Alamos has to develop the tools that are necessary to assess the stockpile and predict complications in the future.

National labs like LANL are organized by projects, not disciplines, a structure that invites staff to try different things and engage with colleagues from different backgrounds. Dr. Mason described it as a process of learning in which you fully immerse yourself in a project until you’re tired of it, switch to something else, and then dive back in to the original work. “I find it most energizing to be on a steep learning curve,” he told me.

Dr. Mason also reflected on his early experiences with physics, his father’s career as a geophysicist, and how it always seemed natural that he would be a physicist as well. We went on to discuss his time as an undergraduate and the exhilaration of finally getting meaningful data from a difficult experiment. Dr. Mason also described the role of graduate school in his success. “You don’t learn how to be a nuclear weapons designer in grad school, and that’s a good thing,” he laughed. Rather, the most important skill he looks for in potential employees is the capacity to learn.

As I drove away from Los Alamos, I tried to collect my thoughts. The history of the lab, with its impressive resume of technological and scientific accomplishments, the scale of the scientific endeavor taking place right here in my own state, and the impressive career and leadership of Dr. Mason all left me in awe. He had convinced me that LANL offers prestige to those who join its ranks but that the true benefit of the lab is bringing together so many different researchers inspired to create something greater together.

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