Los Alamos National Laboratory is about 50 miles southwest of rural Peñasco, New Mexico. That distance seemed pretty far to Peñasco High School student James Owen. But a field trip to the Laboratory’s Bradbury Science Museum changed his outlook.
“A Lab staff member introduced the concept of implosion, and it absolutely caught my attention,” Owen remembers. “It’s a relatively easy concept to understand now, but as a high school sophomore, I was really perplexed by this idea of implosion versus explosion. I became really enthralled with Los Alamos from that point forward.”
As a sophomore, Owen began participating in Lab STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs. Twenty-five years later, he is the associate Laboratory director for Weapons Engineering at Los Alamos.
Here, he talks to NSS about his career.
As a high schooler, you commuted 100 miles round trip to participate in STEM programs at the Laboratory. What was that experience like?
My guidance counselor, who happened to be my basketball coach, came up with options of how I could get to the Lab every day. But I told myself I wasn’t going to do it because the programs conflicted with our practice schedule—and basketball was my primary interest. Then, to my surprise, Coach changed our practice schedule so that I could do both. I was up at 5 a.m. to catch a van to the Lab and then back at basketball practice in the afternoon. As a young adult, this was a large commitment. But it honestly changed my life. I went from being a B-minus student to working at Los Alamos in a STEM program and becoming an A student. And it wasn’t because I was academically advanced. I just got interested in science and technology, and I worked very hard at it. It was transformational for me and opened my perspective toward opportunities I never knew existed.
What advice do you have for early career employees at the Lab?
Employ a strong work ethic with a strong focus on mission. We have a Lab populated with some of the world’s most intelligent individuals. I’ve never taken one moment of working here for granted—I’m humbled and proud to work here. This Lab has changed the global landscape, not just through developing the first nuclear weapons, but through wide-ranging national security and scientific achievements that we continue to demonstrate. My advice: Harness opportunities, there are many.
For most of the coronavirus pandemic, the Lab implemented “normal operations with maximized telework.” Did this situation have any silver linings?
Our most important strength is our commitment to our vital national security mission—even as we adapted to the changes and challenges COVID-19 presented. If you look at Google, Facebook, and other progressive companies—who, by the way, we compete with for engineers—they have a more liberal definition of what’s considered a 40-hour work week. And though much of our work in Weapons Engineering is a contact sport [because of its classified nature], we’re finding that we can be more efficient by incorporating flexible schedules. ★