Deb Lewis: Building a life and a legacy

Nearly 30 years at the Laboratory has taught her much about people, projects and poise

June 27, 2022

Deb Lewis

The alarm clock breaks the silence in Deb Lewis’ bedroom. The streetlights in front of her Santa Fe house illuminate the snow-laden branches that dip into view as she glances out of her window into the darkness. It’s early, 5 a.m., but Deb is wide awake now, as the dream space that held her throughout the night slowly fades and reality takes its place. 

A smile crosses her face as she remembers, it’s the first day of her new job!

Deb puts on her glasses and tiptoes down the hall to her daughter’s bedroom. She’s relieved; the sound of her alarm clock hadn’t reached Blake’s small ears. Deb heads to the kitchen for coffee. She decides to get ready for work first, then wake her daughter and begin the mad dash to daycare and then on to Los Alamos.

Caring that reaches beyond family

There are clear notes of joy in Deb’s voice when she talks about her daughter. In fact, one could even say that it was her daughter who helped launch Deb’s career at the Lab nearly 30 years ago.

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Deb and her daughter traveled to Jamaica in 2008 to celebrate Blake’s graduation from high school.

“I was a newly single mom with a toddler, and I needed a job,” Deb says. “At the time, my mom was a benefits specialist at the Lab, and she told me I should apply and see what happens.”

What happened was the start of a career that has taken Deb across numerous directorates and divisions. More than that, it’s taken her into the hearts of her co-workers, colleagues and employees.

“Deb’s passion for LANL’s mission and people is unmatched,” says Jordan Caddick (PM-CP), who works closely with Deb as a project manager. “In my 15 years of professional experience, I have not met another individual who matches Deb’s ability to lead and inspire.”

From waste management to weapons infrastructure

Deb’s passion for the Lab and its mission began with her first job here in January 1993, when the University of California was in charge of the management and operating contract. Deb was hired as a Project Controls engineer for waste management through a UC program that helped non-traditional-aged college students jumpstart their careers. The program had enough funding to keep Deb employed for two years, then she could strike out on her own, knowing she had some great experience under her belt.

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Deb stands in the newest parking garage at TA-03. She was a deputy director for the Capital Projects Division that completed the construction in July 2021.

At the time, Deb didn’t realize this position would actually be the springboard to a lifelong career at the Laboratory.

“After my first two years with UC, when my funding ran out, I went to work for several subcontractors doing environmental waste management for LANL,” Deb explains. “Eventually, I made my way back to UC, when I was hired in the Facility and Waste Operations Division as a business manager. Then, a new division was created, the Weapons Infrastructure Program Office (WIPO), and I was invited to be a program manager over there. I jumped at the chance!”

Deb was assigned to Weapons Engineering, where she managed a large portfolio of facilities, including the DARHT (Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test), tritium and high explosives facilities. Coming from a waste management and project controls background, Deb felt the self-imposed pressure to learn about working in a program office that served as the funding source for operations, maintenance and capital projects.

Fortunately, her business degree and master’s in project management prepared her to dive in and learn how to do all of that, and more, in the world of weapons engineering.

“It was definitely stressful,” Deb admits. “I had to learn so much, so fast. I just kept my nose to the grindstone and kept pushing myself.”

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Deb stands in front of a new weather enclosure, which was completed in June 2020 during her tenure as a deputy division leader for Capital Projects. This high-tech enclosure for TA-15's Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility protects millions of dollars of equipment from the elements, boosts experiments and provides a safe year-round working environment for employees.

It’s all about the people

After spending many years “handing out funds” for projects in the Weapons Infrastructure Program Office, Deb now finds herself on the other side. In 2019, she moved to the Capital Projects division where she gets to “go to WIPO and ask for funds” for construction projects.

“In my job today, it’s all about the people,” Deb says. “We have amazing project managers – I’ve hired many of them!”

Her voice softens a little as she continues, “I’m here to guide them. My goal is to make sure this organization keeps moving forward. I make sure my team has the tools to succeed; it’s all about them!”

While leading comes as naturally as breathing to her these days, this wasn’t always the case.

Pay it forward

Deb smiles as she recalls the support she’s received from supervisors and mentors throughout her career here.

“I was a worker bee at WIPO. I had my portfolio, I did my job,” Deb says. “My mentor, Chris James (INT-PROJ), helped me understand weapons, and I eventually became the acting program director. I had to figure out how to lead, how to be on the same page with the team to move us forward. I had to keep their spirits up.”

When Deb was the acting program director at WIPO, she also led — with help from her colleagues in WIPO and ALDWP — the first-ever request for major funds for TA-55, where the Plutonium Facility (PF-4) is located, from our federal customer, the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Deb traveled to Washington, D.C., to present the proposal on behalf of the Laboratory. The request was for $847M, which would go toward maintenance and operations in support of pit production requirements in PF-4 slated for FY21-25. The Lab received a portion of the funds, and it marked the first year the Lab made such a major request to NA-50.

Deb was delighted to receive even a portion of the request for the important mission.

“One of the highlights of my career was getting those funds,” Deb says. “It sent a message: If we’re going to deliver this pit mission, this is what it’s going to take. And we did it!”

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Deb inside the new weather enclosure at DARHT, the world’s fastest X-ray machine used to take radiographs of mock nuclear weapon implosions. Such radiographs help scientists ensure that weapons in the stockpile are safe and effective and that — if ever necessary — they will perform as designed.

Testing limits

Not long after this triumph, Deb was given the opportunity to go to Capital Projects as a deputy division leader. She would be managing people again, and it would give her the chance to do something different, to test herself in a new role once again.

“Moving to Capital Projects gave me a chance to prove to myself that I could tackle another new challenge,” Deb explains. “It was a great opportunity to help implement and affect change, especially with small projects.”

Change is a theme with Deb. She steadfastly refuses to become stagnant, and just as adamantly believes that in order to be effective — as employees, as an organization, as people — we need to change.

Lasting legacy of leaders

Once again, Deb circles back to the topic of people.

“It’s all about the people,” Deb repeats. “The reason I’m here is because of the people in ALDCP, WIPO, the project controls engineers, everyone.”

Deb knows her people. She beams like a proud parent when she talks about her team members.

“We have some of the best project managers I’ve ever worked with,” she says. “They want Capital Projects — and LANL — to succeed as much as I do! We all know that we’re small but important parts of this amazing place, and it feels pretty special.”

This passion for her work and her people is underscored by her constant promise to do what she says she’ll do; her credibility is important to her, and it’s a big part of what inspires her team to embrace that passion, too.

Deb is working hard to create a legacy of leaders — not managers — at the Lab.

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Deb stands beside the new parking structure at TA-03, with the NSSB in the background.