Growing up with an older brother who played football for the University of New Mexico and quizzed her on sports trivia incessantly, Unica Viramontes (née Gonzales) developed a passion for sports. Even though she rarely saw women commentators on TV, she felt destined to become an ESPN sportscaster.
After graduating from Española Valley High School in Northern New Mexico, Viramontes headed to the University of California, Berkeley, to study mass communications. But when she graduated in 2003, market conditions in her field were grim.
Thankfully, Viramontes had maintained relationships from her previous part-time employment at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. As a high school and college student, she had worked for Sharon Eklund, the only female manager in the Security Division at the time. That connection opened a door for Viramontes, allowing her to use her communication skills in the enigmatic security organization.
“After I graduated from college, I had a job offer in security,” Viramontes remembers. “I saw the opportunity as a challenge: Let’s see if I can move up in this male-dominated field. To do that, I knew I needed to learn all of security. I made conscious choices to switch jobs—even if they were lateral and I wasn’t getting any more pay—just so I could learn all there was about security.”
First, she used her communications degree to develop articles, websites, and training materials about security issues for Lab employees. Next, she waded into the deep waters of the field, first as a security officer and then, in succession, as a security assessment specialist, program specialist, and program manager.
Part of an elite team
Now, 20 years later, Viramontes is the first female senior director of the Defense Security (DFS) Program. Her program, which includes the Security Division and the Safeguards Division, is responsible for preventing and neutralizing threats.
The job includes things like safeguarding special nuclear material, property, information, and personnel. The program also provides expertise, support, and guidance in all areas of security—from classification to personnel security, and especially nuclear material control and accountability.
“Our threats are constantly evolving,” Viramontes says. “We have to anticipate what the next threat is going to be and how to stop it.”
“My favorite part of the job is not knowing what’s going to happen,” she continues. “It’s always something different. The moment you say, ‘Wow, that could never happen,’ it happens. I guess I thrive in chaos. I was never in the military, but to me, this is my service to the nation.”
A growing mission
To help the Lab resume production of plutonium pits by 2026, Viramontes is helping the Lab strategize a security game plan. Comprehensive infrastructure improvements to the Lab’s existing Plutonium Facility will enable the pit manufacturing initiative, and Viramontes aims to provide a higher level of security across the Lab to protect this work from adversaries.
“Our biggest challenge here is that we’re an open campus,” Viramontes explains. “If you go to any other national laboratory, there is a distinct perimeter. Unless you have a badge, you’re not getting in. At Los Alamos, we have public highways passing through our property. Working with Lab leadership and Department of Energy headquarters, we need to close our campus while still allowing the public to traverse it.”
In an organization dominated by men and ex-military personnel, Viramontes has earned a reputation for getting teams to flourish and accomplish difficult things.
“The success of her team members is her success. She continuously works to ensure the ideas and suggestions of her team are heard,” says Bill Mairson, the chief operating officer for the Environment, Safety, Health, Quality, Safeguards, and Security Associate Directorate.
Viramontes says her management style is based on what she learned from extraordinary role models throughout her Laboratory career. “Always be humble and kind” is a mantra she holds onto from former Associate Director Mike Lansing, who showed what it looks like to value relationships and be a champion for your team.
Viramontes keeps her door open, even though some days it means she doesn’t get as much done because people drop in. “If something goes wrong, they can come to me,” she says. She has trained herself not to overreact to problem situations but rather focus on the remedy. She keeps score of what’s going right on her team and hands out monetary awards, handwritten notes, and encouraging words. And in meetings, when employees file in with serious faces, she helps them find humor without losing sight of the gravity of a situation.
“Unica seems to have an endless supply of energy. She is always moving at 110 miles per hour,” Mairson says. “But to her credit, she is also focused on continuously training and stretching her leadership team so that they grow and develop professionally.”
Specially trained protective force subcontractors currently make up about half of Viramontes’ program and soon will be doubling in numbers. Photo Courtesy LANL