Minimizing the threat

Nancy Jo Nicholas, associate Laboratory director of Global Security, reflects on her path at Los Alamos, from Star Wars to arms control.

By Virginia Grant | February 16, 2021

Nancy Jo Nicholas Opt
Associate Laboratory Director Nancy Jo Nicholas CREDIT: Los Alamos National Laboratory

As a graduate student in physics at George Washington University, Nancy Jo Nicholas came to Los Alamos National Laboratory to gather data for her thesis experiment. “Working as part of an accelerator user group for a whole summer was amazing,” she says, “but I never really saw any of the rest of the Laboratory.” Nonetheless, she moved to Los Alamos after graduation and took a position in the Advanced Nuclear Technology group.

“For me, as a young graduate student and early career scientist, it was so important to see women role models.”- Nancy Jo Nicholas

“The position I was offered was in the Star Wars missile defense program,” Nicholas remembers. “It required a Q clearance and sounded really exciting. But by the time I got a Q, the project was canceled, and I was assigned to work on detector development for waste assay because it was well-funded.” Although the excitement level of measuring waste paled in comparison to working on Star Wars, Nicholas learned a lot from that experience, specifically that even if the work is following the funding, some exciting science can come out of it. “I learned a lot about gamma-ray and neutron-based detectors,” she says, “which I was later able to apply to international safeguards and arms control verification missions.”

Nicholas had two early-career changes of stations, which are short-term assignments away from Los Alamos—one at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado and one at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) headquarters in Washington, D.C. After she returned to Los Alamos, Nicholas eventually became a deputy group leader, the first step in her path to her current position, associate Laboratory director of Global Security.

Now, Nicholas heads the Global Security directorate, defending against the nuclear threat from foreign adversaries. “Sometimes we work with other friendly nations,” she explains, “but sometimes it’s collaborating with the intelligence agencies doing traditional spy work.”

As part of her recent work with friendly nations, Nicholas became a founding board member of the World Institute for Nuclear Security, an international nonprofit based in Vienna, Austria. “Being on the board of directors not only gave me a platform for helping a cause I care deeply about—strengthening nuclear security globally by sharing best practices—but it also afforded me the opportunity to engage with leaders around the world and taught me a lot about nonprofits and international finance and fundraising,” she says.

The Lab’s Global Security program often involves getting different— sometimes seemingly unrelated—areas of the Lab to collaborate. For example, Global Security has funded some work in nuclear forensics that involves scientists from the Lab’s Chemistry Division as well as the Weapons directorate. “We work across an extraordinary span of security levels,” Nicholas says, “and maintain operational research environments."

Security Medal Award
At the 2019 Global Security Medal Award ceremony, Nancy Jo Nicholas is pictured with (from left) NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Brent Park, award recipient Stephen Yarbro, and Laboratory Director Thom Mason.

While part of Nicholas’ work involves reading about and promoting the science of the Laboratory (and occasionally contributing to technical papers), she misses the days of doing her own science. “I’m an experimentalist by training, so I really miss being in the lab and getting to do hands-on work,” she says, “but in the role I’m in now, I get to facilitate that work, which is great.” One of her favorite parts of the job is going around the Lab to see the work being done and talking with the scientists. This is something Nicholas has missed during the long months of telework made necessary by the coronavirus pandemic. “We aren’t seeing nearly as many people, and I’m not doing much travel at all. I miss being out in the world and maintaining relationships.”

Nicholas also works to recruit and develop scientists and leaders at Los Alamos. Before the pandemic, she gave an invited talk at her alma mater, George Washington University, before the Division of Nuclear Physics of the American Physical Society. She spoke about careers in physics beyond academia and encouraged early career physicists to consider Los Alamos and the national laboratories.

One of the milestones of Nicholas’ career was in 2017 when she became the first female principal associate director at any of the University of California–operated laboratories. Her journey to this position was inspired by the female role models Nicholas saw when she was beginning her work as a physicist at Los Alamos. “For me, as a young graduate student and early career scientist,” she says, “it was so important to see women role models.” When she started at the Lab, Nicholas saw women leading the Physics Division, the Biology Division, and the Weapons Engineering directorate. “I don’t think I would have stayed if I hadn’t seen role models like that.”

Now that she has become one of those role models, Nicholas focuses heavily on mentorship at Los Alamos. “I’m quite passionate about leadership development—investing for the future through leaders and managers,” she says. “In Global Security, we’re working on this at many levels through some really active early career working groups.” And she herself mentors participants in the Laboratory Operational Leadership Academy. “I’m really committed to making sure the Lab has strong technical leaders and managers,” she says.

As for her own leadership style, Nicholas considers herself an ambassador. “I’ve always been passionate about building and nurturing relationships,” she says. “I’m loyal to Los Alamos National Laboratory, and I like to remain engaged in the broader community.”