Dr. Anna Llobet has been the Summer Physics Camp for Girls since 2016. Photo Courtesy LANL
A participant in the 2022 Summer Physics Camp for Young Women. Photo Courtesy LANL
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Physicist Dr. Anna Llobet came to Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2001 as a postdoc. Armed with PhDs from Universite Joseph Fourier in Grenoble, France, and Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona in her native Spain, she quickly became a mover and shaker in the LANL community where she is also well-known as an advocate for women in STEM fields.
Several years ago, Llobet along with others at LANL began thinking on how to improve STEM ambitions for young women in Northern New Mexico.
“We researched the issues and that led us to conclude that a camp for young women in New Mexico, in particular young women that might not have STEM role models, was needed. We worked very closely with the superintendents of the public schools close by that we knew personally in Pojoaque, Santa Fe and Los Alamos, and we concluded that our camp would have to have certain characteristics because of New Mexico-specific needs,” she said. “We are extremely lucky in New Mexico to have two fantastic Department of Energy national laboratories (Sandia and Los Alamos) so a young person in New Mexico should realize that there are endless opportunities for careers here in New Mexico in a variety of fields, contributing to our nation’s safety and security.”
Llobet and her group tried to figure out where they could get funding for this pilot program that they called the “Summer Physics Camp for Young Women in Northern New Mexico”. They were awarded a mini-grant by the American Physical Society and through a partnership with New Mexico Consortium – that’s how the camp got started.
“In our camp, we hire local public school educators because we believe, based on the science, that to impact our communities even more we need to impact our public schools. So by hiring public school teachers we were not only contributing to the students, impacting their lives and future but also our public school education in New Mexico by making possible for public school educators to meet a very large, diverse group of scientists, engineers, technicians that work at national labs, we expose educators to different ways to explain or think about concepts or demonstrations concepts that in return they can use in their own classroom. Also, these very same scientists and technicians that they met at the camp could also volunteer in their own classroom!” she said.
The camp also offers a stipend for the students because it understands that some families rely on kids’ support in the summer watching younger siblings while parents are at work or contributing to the family finances by getting a summer job.
“To make sure that education and life career fulfillment was not a financial burden to our neighbor communities and families, we offered a stipend to the students, so that’s what makes this camp different from other offerings – it’s free to the students and we offer a stipend,” Llobet said.
The camp was held at Pojoaque Valley High School in-person for three years. Students were offered food – breakfast, lunch and snacks –– that were free to the students so that there would be no burden of any kind for families.
“Pojoaque Valley High School is at the crossroads of many communities – Espanola, Santa Fe and Los Alamos, and we had students coming from as far as Las Vegas when the camp was in-person. We were very excited about that,” Llobet said. “The stipend could also help them with gas expenses and we tried to create carpools, so that again it was not a burden for families and it was a fantastic way for them to find other women who had similar interests. They discovered that being a nerd and being curious and being excited about a resistor not working was cool.”
The camp started with 20-25 students a year and then three years ago, COVID-19 came about and a decision had to be made. So much was unsure but the organizers jumped into the challenge.
“We realized we had to continue supporting our community so we looked for opportunity rather than gloom– could we move the camp into a different set up, a virtual set up. Such a setup allowed us to reach out to the labs in Albuquerque and expand the reach to central New Mexico. Sandia National Laboratories were very excited about the opportunity to get involved,” she said. “They helped us organize the camp virtually and we extended the reach of the camp to all New Mexico. Sandia also contributed volunteers and financial support”
Every year the camp organizers conduct a campaign of solicitation. They apply for grants wherever they can. This year they had 15 different sponsors. LANL supports Llobet’s time and effort spent in the organization of this event as well as contributes to the camp funding. (See below for list of sponsors)
“Hawaii is a very rural area if you think about it. They also have amazing observatories so there are a lot of possibilities in the field of technology engineering and science. We partnered in Hawaii with Dr. Pascale Creek Pinner who we hired to join us at the camp in Pojoaque when she was awarded a Fellowship in the Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists in the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Since then we have been working with her, so for the last two years she has been our point of contact in Hawaii. When we were having the camps virtually we invited five students from Hawaii supported by the Hawaii Science and Technology Museum and we were able to extend the camp from Northern New Mexico to all of New Mexico and Hawaii,” Llobet said.
This year more than 100 volunteers worked to make the camp happen in June. They included folks from LANL, Sandia, N3B, Oak Ridge National Laboratory as well as professors from Dresden, Germany and the University of California.
“We had 40 students this year including the five from Hawaii. We had 31 different schools represented. There were students from 10 different counties in New Mexico. I think the farthest away was Union County. What we also realized is that making the camp virtual made it a lot
more accessible for students that live in reservations, for example students that live in the Santa Fe Indian School during the school year who go back home when the school year is over. We had students attending from as far away as Navajo Nation. The camp being virtual allowed us to also serve those students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to join us in person” she said. “This year if we look at the stats of those accepting you could say that 83 percent of the selected students were considered ethnic underrepresented minorities in STEM, whether Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islanders or Asians, and they all identified as women or non-binary.
“If you identify as women, trans woman or non-binary you are likely to face challenges in STEM fields because of biases, social norms and expectations”. Many scholarly reports can be found online from UNESCO and other organizations about it. “We don’t care about your gender at birth, if you identify as a woman or non-binary, we will accept you in the camp. The reason why we do a camp in STEM for young women is because we are extremely under-represented in a large number of Science, Technology and Engineering fields. Humanity needs to leverage the knowledge and expertise of half of the world population if we want to successfully solve the complex problems that humanity faces” Llobet said.
She said sometimes people quote the numbers without looking carefully at which disciplines.
“Women might be very well-represented in a field like biology when it comes to college but when you look into the job opportunities, we don’t see those faces in the decision-making positions. It feels like in computer science, engineering, physics, the numbers are very grim. The research shows that while the numbers of women in those fields is increasing slowly and they worsen and worsen as you go higher up in career development mainly due to societal biases and lack of diversity in the workplace and hiring committees. In addition, psychology shows that women tend to lose self-confidence when we are teenagers. When we are young kids, we want to go to the moon and become astronauts and when we become teenagers we start hearing those voices in our head that say you’re not good enough,” Llobet said.
She said this is part of biology and while biology can’t be changed, the camp for young women can create a supportive and safe environment to share with the young women that we all went through the same experience and show them how women can help each other and team up to empower each other.
“Sometimes hearing similar stories helps make sure that the students understand that when we, the volunteers, were their age, we had similar challenges. Many of the camp volunteers shared their personal experiences with the students. We had from the director of LANL to associate directors at Sandia to technologists, scientists, engineers. In fact, 78 of the 104 volunteers were women volunteers that came to the camp to share their experiences and lead an activity. Many of us shared that we didn’t have family that went to college or STEM role models. My parents didn’t go to college but it was very important to them that each of us, kids, had an education and went to college. They didn’t care what it was for but they put it in our brains that education is something that nobody can take away from you. The house can be repossessed by the bank, you can lose your car in an accident, you can lose your health but your education is yours,” Llobet said.
A large number of our students who participated in the camp didn’t have family role models in STEM, or parents that went to college or parents with PhDs. A quarter of the students reported they will be first-generation college students in their family. Llobet believes that if they could identify themselves with one of the volunteers in similar situations that went to college and became scientists at Los Alamos, it would help them.
“Many of us were first generation college students and we shared with them that we didn’t know at their age what we wanted to do. We shared with them our secrets. We told them, “Don’t give up, persist.” Find something you are excited and fascinated about and stop those voices in your head that tell you you’re not good enough. Find something you’re excited about and time will tell. And do what it takes” I think that’s very powerful. They see role models that have an accent like me. I’ve been here more than 20 years and I still have my accent. I don’t think it’s going to go away ever. They see people with similar accents from all sorts of identities, all sorts of backgrounds – people that took the military route and got their education through the GI Bill. If you want it, there are possibilities” she said.
Representatives from Northern New Mexico College, UNM, NMSU and New Mexico Tech met with the students on the last day of camp to make sure they knew how and where to get information on applying for college and how to get financial support.
“Those representatives were clear. If you want to get an education, financial aid should not be an issue. We’ll help you. There are grants. We will help you get there. Sometimes we know from past students that they hear in the community that it’s not worth paying for college and getting those loans, to then get a low-paying job and be in debt forever. We explain to them, ‘I didn’t go to Stanford, I went to University of Barcelona and I’m a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory.’ New Mexico colleges are great and if that’s the way to do it, just build your plan and career, take risks and opportunities and you will make it,” she said.
During the two-week camp, students hear talks on different topics but also participate in hands-on activities. The volunteers gather and prepare all the materials a student might need. When the students apply they are asked if they have an internet connection and if they have a computer so they can connect to the virtual camp, and they all had that.
“Sometimes the bandwidth was suboptimal but we made it work. And we delivered to each student a box and a bag filled with all the materials they could need – that means voltmeters, resistors, a PiTop which is a computer, components for robotics, components for cosmetic chemistry, a solar panel kit box, magnets, goggles and gloves, batteries, optics set with lasers and lenses, a kit to build a robotic hand ..– a very large box full of materials that they might need during the camp because to create equity we need to make sure that nothing is an impediment for those students to succeed in the camp,” Llobet said. “That means that we gave them a kit with hand tools, duct tape etc , so that they didn’t have to go and ask mom or dad for needle-nose pliers or a wrench. They didn’t have to buy anything, they were given everything and after the camp the students are asked to return the materials because they are reusable for next year. Anything that was not consumed had to be returned.”
Among the many activities the students participated in were two multi-day projects which allowed the students to participate in groups by creating break-out rooms. One of the projects was building a robotic hand. The students used all the basic skills they learned during the first week such as how to use a voltmeter and how to write some simple code and during the second week they got to use those skills in a project.
“We have students that go from 8th to 12th grade so we have a very broad range of knowledge and 31 different schools. That’s a nightmare. So we need to create in the first week some kind of basics that we all understand what we’re talking about and during the second week one group created a robotic hand that if you had the glove in your hand with sensors it would move the robotic hand that was farther away. The students realized while doing that – they had a lot of challenges and frustrations but that overcoming difficulty is part of life and that they need to embrace it. We help each other; some students made a mistake in the code, we helped them there, but ultimately it’s not like in school where there’s a very positive way of doing it and everybody finishes. Sometimes you get stuck and you need to figure it out.” she said.
The other project was building their own solar-powered home and each student could use their creativity in both projects to modify the project to their own taste.
“Some students built a barn with LED lights, with sensors to turn on the lights, where the fake horse got into the stable. Another student that does a lot of sports built a gym with cardboard and all the electrical system with lights and switches and things like that. She even included a fan because gyms are hot and a sign that would turn on and say, ‘Have a good day’ when a person entered the gym. As you see, each student was able to use their own creativity to make their STEM project and that’s something the students don’t see in school – that science is an extremely creative venue.They often see it as very prescriptive when, in fact, you can get to the finish line in many different ways,” Llobet said.
To ensure a high quality camp and to be able to “touch” every student in a personal manner, the camp is limited to 40 students.
“It is very sad that we have to turn down students from all over New Mexico. There is so much interest and we can only do one camp a year and we can only deliver to 40 students,” she said.
When the camp was in person, the students were given the opportunity to visit LANL and they got to see LANSCE and other facilities. Llobet noted that it is a lot of work to bring a troop of minors onto the Lab but that the incredible support of managers that believe that inspiring the surrounding communities is an important endeavor made it happen.
“In this past year when we were virtual we were trying to figure out how to replace the in-person visit to LANL and again thanks to John Sarrao and our management we were able to do a live video from the Isotope Production Facility at LANSCE, which was fascinating for the students to hear those alarms, hear those noises, to see women working with cranes and working with radioactive materials, demonstrating that the Lab’s mission is much larger than what they ever imagined. In the Isotope Production Facility we are producing isotopes that are used for medical
imaging or for the treatment of cancer. We are one of the facilities that makes sure that we have enough of these isotopes in this country to continue saving lives,” she said.
The women volunteers talked about their day jobs and how many of them are mothers.
“We explained that many of us had to make the decision to have children at some point in life. Some of us had children very early when we were in college, others did it later and we all had challenges but we shared that it is not an all-or-nothing choice. You can have a career and a family and still be a good mother. Some of the volunteers explained that they took a break when they were raising their children and then came back into the workforce. Others like me took the six weeks maternity leave and came back to work thanks to having supportive management, and having more women in the workplace” Llobet said. “At the end of the day we all face very similar challenges and we can overcome those, but we need to team up to help each other to inspire the next generation of women in science and to continue to support these young women.”
Llobet shared a little about her own background. Born and raised in Barcelona, Spain, when she went to college in Barcelona, she wanted her parents to be proud of her and save money in tuition… so she had very good grades.
“I worked very hard and I took opportunities. During my college years, a professor in the materials science department asked me if I wanted to update the labs book so I did that and through that I started getting interested in material science. Then during my last year in college I got some grants to do an internship at the Institude de ciencia de materials de Barcelona (ICMAB-CSIC) and I would go there after class few days a week and just reach out to people to see what they were doing and that increased my interest in material science,” she said.
Then she took what she called a “risk jump” and accepted an Erasmus grant to go Laboratoire Louis Neel in Grenoble where the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility is located as well as the Institut Laue Langevin, a research neutron reactor where she did a large number of experiments. While she was there, she attended the HERCULES course to learn about science performed using large user facilities and was offered funding for her PhD program.
“When I was done with my PhD, I applied for a grant and was supposed to go to Edinburgh, Scotland but someone from Los Alamos contacted me asking if I wanted to come and do a postdoc here. I had never been to the United States and didn’t know where Los Alamos was, but I said, ‘Why not? Let’s do it,’ and I came here in 2001 and I worked in the Material Science and Technology Division,” she said. ”When my post doc was over, I asked if the Lujan Neutron Scattering Center at LANSCE would be interested in me and they said yes.”
She pointed out that she has worked with different divisions over the years, which is something she points out at the camp.
“When you work at a national lab, you can change types of research from applied to basic, from experimental to theoretical and that’s where I am right now” she said.Through partnering with other stakeholders at LANL like Cassandra Casperson from Student Programs and Michele Decroix, chair of Athena Engineers at LANL, they developed a pilot pipeline summer internship program that has attracted past camp students into LANL internships.
The lessons learned from that pilot pipeline program were then used when LANL joined SAGE, and formed a consortium of DOE National Laboratories with the mission to engage curious and passionate students, and empower them to explore a wide range of possibilities for their future, in order to broaden gender diversity in STEM and foster creativity and innovation for continued scientific and technological leadership. (https://mysagejourney.org/)
Llobet is also a member of the J Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee and was recently elected 2023 vice-chair. The J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee, was established 50 years ago to honor the intellectual and ethical legacy of the Scientific Director of the Manhattan Project and fundraises to sponsor annual lectures in Los Alamos, New Mexico, by internationally significant speakers, provides academic scholarships to students from Los Alamos, Pojoaque, and Santa Fe high schools, and promotes science education in other ways in the community. (jromc.org).
In a ceremony on October 8 in Las Cruces, Llobet was awarded the IMPACT! Award by the New Mexico Network for Women in Science and Engineering. The Award is given every year to a New Mexico woman for her extraordinary efforts in encouraging and helping women enter and succeed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), as well as promoting networking and communication among women in these careers (www.nmnwse.org).
In a ceremony on October 22, Llobet was awarded a LANL Community Relations Medal, which recognizes active Lab employees or retirees who have made significant contributions to the Lab’s goal of excellence in community relations. The medal honors community leadership and building partnerships within Northern New Mexico across the areas of STEM education, economic/workforce development and philanthropic investment of time and resources.
“It is an honor to work for an institution like LANL that values not only technical accomplishments but also is strongly committed to supporting efforts to improve and lift our communities.” Llobet said.
Sponsors for the 2022 Summer Physics Camp were:
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Sandia National Laboratory
Triad National Security, LLC
SAGE (Science Accelerating Girls Engagement
American Chemical Society
Texas A&M University
Los Alamos Women in Science
NM Network for Women in Science & Engineering
American Physical Society
Institute of Nuclear Materials Management
Athena Engineering Scholars
Hawaii Science and Technology Museum
Some of the young women from 8th grade through 12th grade who participated virtually in this year’s Summer Physics Camp for Young Women. Photo Courtesy LANL
Robotic hand servo motors were part of the box of materials sent to the participants of the camp. Photo Courtesy LANL
Materials sent to the participants’ homes for use during the camp with an electricity component even included a potato. Photo Courtesy LANL