New Los Alamos program supports opportunities for Indigenous women in physics

Indigenous women are the most underrepresented group in physics

December 2, 2021

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Astrid Morreale and Cesar Luiz da Silva.

Los Alamos, N.M., Dec. 2, 2021—A newly funded program at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in collaboration with Fort Lewis College, supports undergraduate Indigenous women interested in a career in physics. Offered to two women per year majoring in physics at Fort Lewis College, the program aims to build a pipeline of talent from the undergraduate level in the Four Corners region to graduate programs and eventual careers in physics, including at national laboratories such as Los Alamos.

“Indigenous women are the most underrepresented group in physics degree completion and careers, and we’re in a region where the demographics are heavily Native American,” said co-principal investigator Astrid Morreale, physicist with the Nuclear and Particle Physics and Applications group at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “It’s a bit of an incoherence, where we’re here doing high-level science and engineering, yet still underrepresented groups are either not coming to us or we’re not bringing them in. This program represents an effort to turn that around.”

Two program participants have been selected as the first cohort in the program. Julie Nelson, a senior at Fort Lewis College, is an engineering and math major with an emphasis in physics, and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

“This internship and the research I am privileged to participate in will be the first steps I take in pursuit of a career in physics,” said Nelson. “Obtaining the knowledge no longer seems out of reach because of this opportunity. I am thrilled to get hands-on experience at Los Alamos National Laboratory and explore the research side of academia while collaborating with scientists and mentors about the contributions of nuclear and particle physics that can benefit humanity."

Arielle Platero, a junior at Fort Lewis College, is also an engineering and math major with an emphasis in physics, and a member of the Navajo Nation.

“As a Navajo woman in the STEM field, I am very excited to work with the Los Alamos team, because it gives me an opportunity to contribute to and to help pave the way for new and exciting physics discoveries,” said Platero. “I am looking forward to continuing on this path to graduate school and to representing my tribe and showing the younger generation that we can do great things if we apply for these opportunities and put in the work.”

The students will receive year-round mentoring from Laboratory physicists in the course of their education at Fort Lewis College. The program includes a 10-week internship in Los Alamos and a two-week visit to CERN, the European Council for Nuclear Research. Students will also be able to participate in the American Indian Resource Group that promotes access to Native American resources and a sense of community and inclusion while learning about high-energy nuclear physics at the Laboratory.

While the program aims to help indigenous women advance in physics, Morreale stresses that the Laboratory and the field of physics has much to gain by bolstering participation from underrepresented groups.

“We don’t see this program as the Laboratory just helping students,” Morreale said. “We need them. They would help us if they came here. We want to have different ideas and different points of view in our discipline. We’re trying to help our field by bringing in new talent and perspectives.”

The program is funded for two years, and began Nov. 15. 

During their Laboratory internship program, participants like Nelson and Platero will conduct gluon saturation research, seeking to discover a new state of matter in which gluons are densely packed and give rise to properties not unlike ordinary glass. Gluons are fundamental particles that glue all visible matter together and can studied with detectors being constructed at Los Alamos and then deployed at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The participants will work alongside Morreale and co-principal investigator Cesar Luiz da Silva, staff scientist and fellow Nuclear and Particle Physics and Applications group member.

A highlight of the program is a two-week visit to CERN, which is on the border of France and Switzerland, and is the largest particle physics laboratory in the world. Students will descend more than 300 feet below the French countryside to tour one of the detector experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, which investigates the properties of subatomic particles, and spend time reviewing data collected and interacting with the global cohort of students and researchers who come to work at CERN.

About Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary research institution engaged in strategic science on behalf of national security, is managed by Triad, a public service oriented, national security science organization equally owned by its three founding members: Battelle Memorial Institute (Battelle), the Texas A&M University System (TAMUS), and the Regents of the University of California (UC) for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

Los Alamos enhances national security by ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, developing technologies to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction, and solving problems related to energy, environment, infrastructure, health, and global security concerns.