Pushing beyond limits on and off the stage

Wendy Caldwell finds success as a dancer, choreographer and asteroid modeler

May 15, 2024


Not every scientist can rap hit songs from the Broadway play "Hamilton" or boast that their first job was acting in a Neal McCoy music video at age 12. Even fewer scientists can say they've performed two plays that they've written or danced ballet to rise above the most trying times of life.

But it's truly only a tiny group of scientists who can say they have an asteroid circling the solar system named after them.

All of these things are true for Wendy Caldwell, a scientist with Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Verification and Analysis group.

"I love that my job allows me to be myself and only judges me on doing good science," Wendy says.

In many respects, this planetary scientist has pushed the limits all her life. How did she turn so many far-flung interests and struggles into a life of beauty and wonder?

The curtain opens on science

Wendy completed her doctorate in applied mathematics in 2019 from Arizona State University, after she earned a bachelor's in mathematics from the University of Tennessee. When Wendy started undergrad in 2001, she planned to be pre-law but instead declared math her major after considering what she really enjoyed.

"I've always been a creative person," she says. "Mathematics is an inherently creative field, which is one of the many reasons I chose to study it."

She also took dance classes in undergrad and graduate school to maintain a healthy work/life balance and to increase her skill level.

"I would have to say my first love was the arts," Wendy says. "I love performing, and I love creating. In sixth grade, I told my parents I wanted to be an actress. They got me an agent for my birthday, and that's how I got my first job in a music video. I found that I preferred performing live, though, and focused more on theater. I didn't pick up dance until high school, but it came naturally to me. I'm really good at counting to eight."

During a break in formal education, she developed sudden chronic pain, which impeded her ability to work and left her with an overwhelming pile of medical debt.

"When I was first diagnosed, I was in a wheelchair for 11 months. My doctors said I wouldn't dance again! I also had to learn to walk again. But I did dance, as it helped me regain strength once I was out of that chair," Wendy says. "When I began walking again after being bedridden for nearly a year, I used ballet barre exercises to regain strength, balance, muscle control. Dance has helped me through some of the most difficult physical and mental challenges in my life. As soon as I was medically cleared to dance again, I went straight to the studio to enroll in ballet. I was still wearing my hospital bracelet! I had voluntarily entered inpatient mental health treatment, so dance played a key role in saving my quality of life. It was an hour a week that I was happy to be alive. I've come a long way since then, but I'll never forget what dance has done for me both physically and mentally."

Wendy (center) plays the ghostly Elvira in Los Alamos Little Theatre's 2022 production of "Blithe Spirit."

Wendy has also maintained a love of theater arts.

"Theater is my love language," she says. "I love connecting to the audience. That's really what theater is about; every show is a gift to the audience. When directing, I often remind my casts that someone is going to relate to your character, or someone might really need to laugh today, or someone may need to hear a message the show brings."

Wendy had to pick up several jobs to pay for her education. She was a cook, a private math tutor, an online math grader and a personal assistant to her younger stepsister with disabilities. She also danced ballet/pointe three days per week and choreographed for Circle Modern Dance in Knoxville, Tennessee.

"Circle Modern is a small nonprofit, so dancing and choreographing for them was volunteer work. However, my favorite piece I choreographed for them — a jewel heist to the jazz instrumental version of 'Forgot About Dre' — was in a show that sold more tickets than expected. They ended up giving the choreographers a small payment, which was a nice surprise."

Wendy says she still experiences chronic pain and is open about her battle with depression and anxiety. She advocates for others with disabilities, especially those with invisible illnesses and mental health challenges.

Summer programs ignite her career

Los Alamos factored significantly into Wendy's steady progression from college grad to grad student.

With her undergrad degree freshly in hand and one semester of grad school under her belt, Wendy first came to Los Alamos in summer 2015 as part of the Computational Physics Workshop. She returned in 2016 and 2017 for the summers before moving to Los Alamos in August 2017 to finish her graduate research.

Beginning in undergrad and continuing through her dissertation, Wendy became an expert in modeling prescription drug abuse, research for which she won awards in both undergrad and graduate school. During her graduate research assistant and postdoctoral years, Cathy Plesko and Abby Hunter of the Lab’s X-Computational Physics division were her mentors. Wendy worked on impact cratering on Asteroid 16 Psyche and was honored with one of the Lab's Distinguished Student Awards in 2019.

Since then, a full-time staff position as an applied mathematician at the Lab has kept Wendy busy working on planetary science and defense problems involving impact cratering, mentoring graduate and post-graduate students, and contributing to national and global security science applications.

Artistic representation of asteroids 32110 and 32105. In June 2023, these space rocks were named for planetary defense researchers Wendy Caldwell (asteroid 32110 Wendycaldwell) and Cathy Plesko (asteroid 32105 Plesko). Cathy was Wendy's first mentor at the Lab in 2015 and later served as one of her graduate research assistant and postdoc mentors as well as a member of her Ph.D. committee.

The sky's the limit

These days, Wendy is focused on planetary science applications of shock physics — essentially pondering how asteroids can destroy worlds and how to stop them. She's a member of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test Investigation Team, a multiagency international collaboration that deliberately crashed a spacecraft into an asteroid in 2022 to test kinetic impact as a deflection technique — the first full-scale planetary defense mission.

Based on her work on the DART mission, the International Astronomical Union dubbed asteroid 32110 "Wendycaldwell." (Plesko, her former mentor, also got her name on an asteroid.)

Wendy led the Lab's modeling of 16 Psyche, an asteroid that will be visited by a NASA research mission in 2026. Her expertise includes modeling impact and explosion craters in rocky and metal targets.

Wendy, along with others at the Lab, has modeled Psyche's two largest impact structures to help determine the asteroid's composition. Such information would be useful in understanding how to deflect an asteroid should the need arise and could also provide insight into the necessary tools for exploring similar bodies in the solar system.

Passionate about giving back, Wendy makes time to do STEM outreach for schoolchildren, as well as university students and faculty, and Laboratory scientists.

A dance of survival

Wendy married Nico Lanchier, an Arizona State University professor, on March 14, 2020, a few days before the COVID-19 shutdowns began — a marriage that came with Wendy's two "bonus daughters," ages 15 and 10.

In her free time, Wendy dances ballet with Dance Arts Los Alamos and has become a fixture in the local theater scene. She is the president of the Los Alamos Light Opera board of directors and is heavily involved with the Los Alamos Little Theatre, most recently as the producer of "Twice Upon a Time." Wendy also performs in the local Atomic Follies Cabaret as PhDiva, and she sings, dances and acts in the cabarets.

Wendy says she has taken a liking to directing plays for both the Los Alamos Little Theatre and Los Alamos Light Opera. In March 2022, she directed her first Little Theatre show, "The Viewing Room." In November 2022, she directed another play, "Clue on Stage," which attracted sell-out crowds.

Wendy recently directed and choreographed Los Alamos Light Opera's production of "Fun Home," the Tony Award-winning coming-of-age and coming-out story of cartoonist Alison Bechdel.

Her biggest pride and joy on the stage so far? Directing and choreographing "Matilda the Musical."

"It was the most successful Los Alamos Light Opera show in at least 20 years," Wendy says. The show featured multiple dance styles: musical theater, Latin ballroom, pointe, contemporary and hip-hop. "I love choreographing. Before 'Matilda,' I hadn't choreographed in about a decade. Dance is a way of telling a story through the body. My body doesn't always do what I want it to, or what it could do in my 20s and 30s, so choreographing gives me the outlet to create something meaningful through others."

Not every scientist has overcome mental and physical illness, continued to dance, perform and direct theater productions, and had an asteroid named after her thanks to her work as an applied mathematician. But Wendy continues to open the curtain on new discoveries, both in life and in art.