James Owen: From Peñasco To Leader Of Weapons Engineering At Los Alamos National Laboratory

James Owen

Back where it all began: A single experience at the Bradbury Science Museum as a high school student proved transformative for James Owen, leading him back up the Hill to a lengthy, successful career at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Photo Courtesy LANL


Growing up in Peñasco, in rural Taos County, Los Alamos seemed like a far-off world to James Owen and his friends. But a school field trip to the Bradbury Science Museum when he was a high school sophomore abruptly changed all that.

“A Los Alamos National Lab staff member presented to us and introduced this concept of implosion and it absolutely caught my attention,” James 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 interested and really enthralled with Los Alamos from that point forward.” 

Soon after the Bradbury experience, James began participating in Lab STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs as a high school summer student. He later returned to the Hill as a graduate student. For 25 years now, James has worked in the Laboratory’s Nuclear Weapons Program and is a recognized leader across the Nuclear Security Enterprise.

James has demonstrated technical and program leadership abilities in successfully executing some of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s and Department of Defense’s most significant and challenging nuclear weapon programs.

In his current role as the associate Laboratory director for Weapons Engineering (ALDW), James manages the operations and infrastructure of high explosives (HE) science and engineering research/development across 21 square miles, which are critical to the Laboratory’s execution of nuclear weapons mission.

James earned a master’s in engineering from the University of Colorado in Boulder and a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from New Mexico State University.

A life-changing experience

James started at the Lab as a summer student and later became a graduate student before working his way up the ladder. Having a place like Los Alamos in his backyard as a student and early career person gave him opportunities that are nonexistent in rural New Mexico, and yet there were obstacles to overcome. In his own words, James explains:

“After the Bradbury field trip, I went back home and talked to my guidance counselor about the Lab’s STEM programs and asked if there was something my school could participate in. It turns out there was, but I had a huge challenge trying to figure out how to get a ride to Los Alamos every day. It’s a long drive.”

“My counselor also happened to be my basketball coach, and basketball was my primary interest. He came up with a few options, but I told myself I wasn’t going to do it because it conflicted with our practice schedule. Then to my surprise, coach changed our practice schedule so that I could get to Los Alamos and get back just in time for practice. I remember being tired as hell through that entire period (laughs). I was up at 5 a.m. to catch a van to the Lab and then back at basketball practice in the afternoon. After that I went home, ate and passed out. But it honestly changed my life — I’m not sure what I would have done if I didn’t have opportunity to work at Los Alamos as a summer student.”

‘My advice: harness the opportunities, there are many’

James believes the Lab still does a good job of fostering and motivating student learning. More on that, in his own words:

“It worked for me at a very personal level. 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 really interested in science and technology, and I worked very hard at it. It was transformational for me and opened my eyes to opportunities I never knew existed.

“I’ve participated on the LANL Foundation board, and I’m on the board for Northern New Mexico College. My organization in particular has focused on outreach as part of our strategic staffing plan. One philosophy I’ve tried to employ in ALDW is that we hire with intent. I don’t want to just hire summer students to give them experiences. I actually want to hire them to be part of our future workforce.”

James offers this advice to students and early career folks:

“It’s about having 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 for granted working at the Lab — I’m humbled by it. I’m incredibly proud to say that I work here, and not just in weapons.

“Just look at the positive influences we’ve had in our core sciences related to COVID-19 — based on this and many other examples, I can hold my head up high and be proud of where I work. This Lab has changed the global landscape, not just through developing the first nuclear weapons, but through wide-ranging national security and scientific achievements we continue to demonstrate.

“My advice: harness the opportunities, there are many.”

James Owen working with students at the first-ever New Mexico Governor’s STEM Challenge in 2019 — a competition testing students’ ability to use science, technology, engineering, and math to solve real-world problems. Photo Courtesy LANL