Lisa Danielson Brings NASA Background And Excitement To LANL Space and Remote Sensing Group

IMG_3810.jpgLisa Danielson speaks at the August Science on Tap event. Photo by Maire O’Neill/


Lisa Danielson joined Los Alamos National Laboratory in April as the lead for planetary science in the Space and Remote Sensing Group. She brought with her that amazing energy, cheerful countenance and sense of humor that affects people wherever she goes.

After 15 years at NASA at the Johnson Space Center, Danielson said two things brought her to the Lab.

“About two years ago I was looking for the next thing I wanted to do with my career. I felt that I had kind of gone as far as I was going to go at JSC and I kept coming back to the fact that there are just so many things to do here at LANL. There’s a lot of exciting and meaningful work going on here and so I really kept my eye out,” she said. “I came out here to interview for a job I knew I wasn’t going to get, but my goal was to convince them that they should just hire me. My overall objective for why I’m here is that I have this background working in a variety of ways at NASA, and to help the Lab grow any and all of their NASA programs.”

Danielson gave a presentation at the August Science on Tap event on her team’s work directing the ChemCam laser. The team meets daily with planetary scientists from around the world who identify which rocks on the surface of Mars to zap and analyze. The engineering team then figures out what commands to send to the ChemCam instrument to make that possible.

Asked what ChemCam is doing now, Danielson said right now it is in the Clay Region.

“People are very excited about that because clays are evidence of water, of past water, perhaps even temporary water. The people that study the surface are very excited about it. There’s a discussion of where to go next, but the Rover right now appears healthy. Hopefully it will break the previous record of 12 years,” she said.

Chemcam just celebrated its seventh year on Mars.

“I’m really excited to seeing what we have for the future because we’re looking at getting back into the NASA astrophysics missions, the neutron gamma ray plasma physics. We haven’t had a presence on a mission since Cassini for that type of instrumentation so we are looking at who are the early career people. We’ve got some real interest from them to do something. The mission environment is so competitive so that’s an important component,” Danielson said. “Also just raising the visibility and awareness at NASA of what the Lab does. NASA doesn’t really have an idea about the Lab’s talent. They have their own go-tos such as the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins and so those are their big mission centers and they don’t think about us. We do everything though, even if weren’t not a mission-level PI, we could be.”

Needless to say she is excited about Mars 2020. The 2020 rover will land at Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021, equipped with a system to cache science samples in tubes that will be delivered to a safe drop-off site. Two subsequent missions, currently in the concept stage, would be needed to bring the Mars 2020 samples home.

Also, Danielson said the decadal survey is opening.

“Every 10 years now, NASA seeks input from the planetary science community to discuss what are our priorities for exploration and our science goals for the next 10 years. So ultimately that means what kind of missions are we going to send up. And one of the things at a recent meeting that we talked about was we should find out what people literally in the community, that are not NASA scientists and PIs and see that they think NASA should be doing. I’m really curious to see what people come back with,” she said.

Asked about a photo of her team in their pajamas that went viral earlier this year Danielson said they “we innocently had a pajama and pizza party”.

“It was really fun but I didn’t think it was going to become a thing because I just innocently sent Herb Funsten an email because the division picnic was that afternoon and I just wanted our management to know that we couldn’t go because we have ops all day and it was a late shift so we were there into the early evening,” she said. “Everyone ran with it and suddenly there was a reporter taking a picture of us. We decided not to do pajama parties again because it made all feel tired. As much fun as it is to wear your pajamas to work, it makes you feel like it’s time to go to bed.”

As to how Danielson ended up with so many women on her team she said the operations are sometimes kind of a thankless task.

“Doing that job does not provide a ton of career advancement in a track but a lot of the people who do operations pretty much volunteer for it. We recruit a little bit but a lot of it comes from people who volunteer and step up. That’s how we got a couple of the team members. They just said, ‘I want to learn how to do this. I know you all need staff’,” she said.

Diversity is very important to Danielson.

“I have been able to work more closely with engineers in my current role and one of the things that has surprised me is the number of stories I’ve had from women engineers who said, ‘I’m the first woman to graduate my program because there was at least one of more faculty members who did not believe women should be in that program and drummed them all out’. And I thought, it’s 2019 and it’s still happening. This is systemically still a problem and it’s allowed to happen because the other members of the faculty allow it to happen. So that’s really it. It’s not that there isn’t interest or talent, it’s that there people that are in a position of power that are really drumming others out which is pretty bad. I have zero tolerance for that,” she said.

Danielson said she is also here to encourage people.

“All of us are really happy to be cheerleaders and mentors for other women in science and engineering. We’re rooting for everybody just as hard as we possibly can,” she said.

Danielson said she tries to be more of an advocate for scientists with disabilities because there are more of them than people think and most of the time they’re hiding.

“Since I’ve moved here where people don’t know me as well, I’ve tried to be more open about it and I’m working on ways that I can either organize or support some of us that are working, because we’re kind of like this underground right now,” she said.

Danielson’s career in space science started at Houston started with a fellowship at the Johnson Space Center where she collaborated in building the high pressure experimental petrology laboratory – that’s part of geology now – that she would later manage while continuing and expanding research in terrestrial  planetary interiors. She spent the last 10 years working at NASA on the JSC Engineering, Technology and Science contract.

“I’ve had two stages in my career – in the lab on the ground doing research and then the dark side, where I got sucked into management, which actually I really like. I get to build programs and facilities and basically bring the resources to the other people that are doing science. One of the most exciting things I did as a researcher was I wanted to do a set of experiments… I wanted to watch the earth’s mantle,” she said. “You don’t get to watch the mantle of the earth. You have to wait for stuff to be brought up. My research was doing experiments that simulated the interiors of planets.”

Danielson said she really wanted to watch something melt or crystallize to see how the whole planet was a liquid and it had to crystalize into the awesome surface we live on. She said there’s a way to do this with very large machinery that melts, heats and squeezes things.

“If you go to a synchrotron, you have a high enough energy x-ray that you can look through your material and see what’s happening and watch it. Even if you can’t see an image of it, you can watch an x-ray pattern of something crystalizing and melting. So I got to do some of the first experiments that ever watched mantle materials melt and re-crystalize and it was pretty cool,” she said. “But I still think the best is yet to come!”