Inspiring science in future generations

Astrophysicist Nicole Lloyd-Ronning works with youth across Northern New Mexico.

By Octavio Ramos | February 16, 2021

Being Essential Opt
Nicole Lloyd-Ronning’s fascination with outer space has never wavered. Here she is standing behind a telescope at the Los Alamos Nature Center Planetarium. CREDIT: Los Alamos National Laboratory

On a clear summer evening, Nicole Lloyd-Ronning of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Computational Physics and Methods group steps outside her house and looks at the stars in the sky. As an Army brat growing up at various locations in the United States and Germany, Lloyd-Ronning would often stand outside the military housing where her family lived and stare at the moon. She imagined herself one day venturing into outer space and exploring the moon and the planets beyond.

“With outreach, it’s all about creativity; I don’t lecture the kids in any way.”- Nicole Lloyd-Ronning

“I wasn’t super-focused on ‘sciencey’ things growing up,” Lloyd-Ronning notes. “I played a lot of sports, had a lot of interests. It wasn’t until late high school—thanks to some amazing teachers—that I discovered I really liked physics and math. That was the route I wanted to pursue in the hopes of becoming an astronaut.”

Now, Lloyd-Ronning is an astrophysicist studying gamma-ray bursts. Her career path was a bit different than she expected, she admits, and deep inside she still wishes for the chance to experience space as an astronaut. “I’ve not let go of the dream,” she says, a twinkle in her eye.

Life interrupts career

In 2004, a few years after she received her doctorate in physics from Stanford University, Lloyd-Ronning joined the Laboratory as a Director’s Postdoctoral Fellow. Early on, she found that she had to make a decision about pursuing her career or taking care of her children.

“I couldn’t seem to find balance as a postdoc with young children, and I had trouble finding childcare that worked for our family,” Lloyd-Ronning explains. “It was a frustrating time, and I decided to take a career break, during which I stayed home with my three kids for the next 10 years.”

Through the help of the M. Hildred Blewett Fellowship from the American Physical Society, Lloyd-Ronning came back to work nearly five years ago. As a subcontractor, she spends about half the week working at the Laboratory. She also is on the faculty of the University of New Mexico–Los Alamos, where she teaches courses in physics and modern astrophysics.

Being Essential2
As a Scientist Ambassador, Nicole Lloyd-Ronning leads an activity for students from the Santa Fe Indian School.

Inspiring future generations

The Laboratory’s Community Partnerships Office contacted Lloyd-Ronning after she had been back at work for a few years. The office wanted to know if she could assist Taos artist Agnes Chavez, who needed the expertise of an astrophysicist. This collaboration led to Lloyd-Ronning’s involvement at the PASEO 2018: Indigenous Cosmology Meets Particle Physics Youth Workshop.

At this workshop, Lloyd-Ronning led a hands-on activity that reinforced that western science textbooks and indigenous cosmology are not in conflict— they are very much on the same page. Through this activity, she hoped that students deepened their understanding of the cosmos while merging Feynman diagrams (which visualize how particles interact with each other) and petroglyphs (which are Native American visual stories carved into rock).

“With outreach, it’s all about creativity; I don’t lecture the kids in any way,” Lloyd-Ronning says.

Lloyd-Ronning’s outreach also includes STEMarts Lab, the program Chavez founded to deliver sci-art installations and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) programming for schools, art and science organizations, festivals, and events.

She’s also a Scientist Ambassador for the Laboratory’s Bradbury Science Museum, where she promotes the public’s understanding of science, technology, and engineering. “It’s been gratifying to engage people who might otherwise not discuss science in their daily lives,” she says. “And, maybe most importantly, it’s made me a better communicator of the things I work on, and why these things might matter to everyone, scientist or not.”

Impressive young minds

As part of her outreach efforts, Lloyd-Ronning has developed programs and is regularly performing hands-on physics experiments with students throughout Northern New Mexico. She helps develop curriculum and mentorship programs for area schools and occasionally gives planetarium shows.

Lloyd-Ronning is often amazed by the impressive young minds she encounters during her efforts. “The students are brilliant and inquisitive, and they really work together to figure things out when we are doing an activity,” she says. “I frequently get knocked off my feet by second-graders asking things that get at the core of fundamental physics.”