A view from the other side

Lab employees take on new roles across the country—and around the world.

By J. Weston Phippen | March 19, 2020

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Los Alamos National Laboratory

Each year about 50 Los Alamos National Laboratory employees temporarily say goodbye to Los Alamos to work for a related national or international organization. The Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) and the Change of Station (COS) programs allow federal employees to relocate across the country. Employees also have the option to work abroad with organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in Vienna, Austria.

These external assignments may send an employee away for a year, or sometimes several years. When staffers eventually return, they have gained meaningful outside experience and helped spread the Lab’s scientific expertise to policy makers. It’s an exchange of ideas that Laboratory Director Thom Mason calls “an institutional priority.” Here, a few people share their experiences.

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Randy Flores

Assignment: IPA in U.S. Representative Ben Ray Lujan’s office, Washington, D.C.

Flores has worked at Los Alamos since he graduated high school, so on his assignment to U.S. Representative Ben Ray Lujan’s office, he was eager to see how the Lab fit into the bigger picture. He arrived in D.C. with his wife, two kids, two cats, and a chihuahua. For the next 18 months, he worked behind congressional scenes to make sure the Lab was represented in new budgets and to inform politicians of Laboratory capabilities. “This can be the difference between a new project and its funding being sent to Los Alamos or to another site,” he explains.

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Rebecca Stevens

Assignment: COS with the NNSA's International Nuclear Safeguards Engagement Program, Washington, D.C.

Second Assignment: Cost-Free Expert with IAEA’s Department of Safeguards, Vienna, Austria

Stevens was away for six years in all. In Vienna, she developed and delivered training courses for IAEA member states on the legal obligations states undertake through their safeguards commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Stevens says she helped four countries begin nuclear energy programs, which brought her a broader understanding of how safeguard issues work on the international stage. “I think we become wiser when we become more open-minded,” she explains. “I’m now more likely to look at my work through a different lens, not just through my default Los Alamos perspective.”

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Heather Dion

Assignment: COS and IPA with NNSA’s office of Nuclear Controls in Washington, D.C.

Dion kicked off her first assignment by working on the inaugural Nuclear Security Summit. “The Summit began as an idea that went from obscurity to becoming a household name in the nuclear community,” she explains. Held every two years from 2010 to 2016, the Summit increased awareness of nuclear security and established best practices for the global security of nuclear materials. “My time in D.C. was a great way to see the direct impacts the Lab has on the broader nuclear community,” Dion says. “And the professional contacts and friendships I established and the education I received through my participation in the summits are invaluable.”

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Matt Heavner

First Assignment: Assistant Director for Global Security, Office of Science and Technology Policy, the White House, Washington, D.C.

Second Assignment: National Counterproliferation Center, Washington, D.C.

Within weeks of arriving in the nation’s capital, Heavner had his picture taken with then-president Barack Obama. This photo and others are included in Heavner’s journal. “Keep a record,” he tells anyone considering an external assignment. “It’s an amazing experience.” In addition to providing technical leadership on nuclear proliferation detection policy at the White House, Heavner’s experience included working on a team that brainstormed how to deliver humanitarian aid to the people of Allepo during the height of the Syrian civil war. Some ideas were digging an underground tunnel or building autonomous kayaks. Those plans never materialized, but he says “working on this timesensitive, critical need during a serious global and political conflict humbled me and changed me for the better.”