You can't download a brain

New initiatives capture knowledge that might otherwise be lost.

By Jill Gibson | July 19, 2023

Publication Feature No Title
Trinity Overmyer, Knowledge Management researcher and team leader, prepares for a technical knowledge capture video interview in the studio. Los Alamos National Laboratory

During the Manhattan Project, J. Robert Oppenheimer established a technical library that contained technical reports, notebooks, memos, letters, photographs, x-rays, documents from other sites, and more.

Today, Oppenheimer’s original library is part of the National Security Research Center (NSRC) at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “Our history underlies every aspect of our work and culture,” says Brye Steeves, NSRC director. “This information tells the story of the science that changed the world 80 years ago and the evolution of that innovation since then.”

Today, the NSRC contains millions of historical materials that serve scientists, researchers, and engineers. Steeves notes that the Lab has new initiatives underway to build on that legacy of preserving information and transferring knowledge between Los Alamos employees. Several of the NSRC’s recent projects focus on a concept called “knowledge management,” which involves identifying, capturing, evaluating, retrieving, and sharing an organization's information assets.

“Knowledge management is relatively new as a discipline,” explains technical project manager Andie Turner. She says that recent initiatives have gained importance as the Lab is undergoing a period of increased hiring. 

“With all of the work that’s coming into the Lab now, we are running fast into the future,” Turner says. Over the course of 2021 and 2022, 646 Lab employees retired and 3,353 new employees came on board, according to Jacklyn Herrera in Human Resources. Nearly 30 percent of Lab employees are younger than 35 years old. Turner notes that “We have a lot of early career people coming in. We are looking at what we can do to create tools to support mentorship of multiple people in a short amount of time.”

One of those tools involves making informational videos. The Knowledge Management team is recording videos for new hires of Lab employees explaining the intricacies of their work.

“Our people are our processes,” Trinity Overmyer, the NSRC’s Knowledge Management team leader and researcher, says. “Before human beings could write, we transferred our knowledge through myths and stories. You can’t download a brain.” That’s why Overmyer spends her days recording employees from all levels of the weapons program. Her goal is to capture people discussing the “art and craft” of their work.

“Imagine what someone knows after working 40 years as a machinist at the Laboratory,” Overmyer says. “That sort of muscle memory, how a part smells when it's right, how the sparks look, that is not something that can just be trained into you. You don’t get a degree in that and just walk in and be able to do that. It takes hands-on work and collaboration. We want to make that evolving information accessible to people.”

Publication Article Body
As part of the Knowledge Management program, Andrew Windham takes photographs at the Nevada National Security Site, where many Los Alamos scientists participated in nuclear testing until 1992.

Turner says she feels an urgency about her work because of the number of retirees and the influx of new employees. “A lot of this information resides only in the heads of people. The window is closing on the people who have these memories.”

The videos that the Knowledge Management team captures are stored online where they can be used by multiple people for training. Turner says that she hopes these recordings will prevent crucial knowledge from being lost. But, she adds that the term ‘knowledge management’ is somewhat of a misnomer. “You can’t manage knowledge,” Turner says. “It’s impossible to manage what people have in their heads.” Instead, she describes what her team does as managing the flow of knowledge from one person and one organization to the next. “I don’t think anybody wants to leave the Lab and have their expertise go nowhere. Your knowledge is your legacy, and we want to help you push your legacy into the future,” she says.

Other knowledge management initiatives include a classified video series for employees called “Unlocking the Vault.” This series of in-person presentations takes archival videos and explains their modern relevance. Recent topics have included the 1999 Wen Ho Lee espionage investigation and the closing of the Rocky Flats Plant, which manufactured plutonium pits from 1952 to 1989. “A lot of employees at the Lab were not here when certain events took place, but they need to understand how those events have influenced the work we do today,” says Veronica Rodriguez, another member of the Knowledge Management team. 

A comprehensive virtual training program for new and early career employees called “Nuclear Fundamentals Orientation” has also been launched. So far, about 2,000 employees from all areas of the Lab have participated in this training. “People have to understand the context of the work in order to contribute to the mission,” Rodriguez says.

Steeves agrees, noting that knowledge management is an essential part of the NSRC. “Information is our duty. Be it curating 15 million-plus materials in our collections, making information available to researchers through online repositories, or growing the information through new knowledge capture initiatives, the NSRC’s resources are vital to today’s mission work.”

Preserving history and making it available paves the way for the future, according to Steeves. “Ensuring that scientific evidence is not lost—and is discoverable—means the Lab’s researchers have access to diverse thought, proof of successful and failed experimentation, and the opportunity for their own fortuitous discoveries today.” ★