Dr. Nina Lanza is the Team Lead for Space and Planetary Exploration at Los Alamos National Laboratory. She is on the science teams for the ChemCam instrument on the NASA Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) rover and the SuperCam instrument on the upcoming NASA Mars 2020 rover.
Dr. Lanza started at Los Alamos as a post-baccalaureate student and continued at the laboratory as a graduate student and postdoc before becoming staff in 2014. Her current research focuses on understanding the origin and nature of manganese minerals on Mars and how they may be indicators of past and present life. She is also a regular contributor on the television series How the Universe Works (The Science Channel). Dr. Lanza was educated at Smith College (AB), Wesleyan University (MA), and the University of New Mexico (PhD).
What inspired you to work in STEM?
In 1986, my parents took me to an outreach event at a local university to observe Halley’s comet, which was making a close approach to Earth. I was seven years old, and I hadn’t thought much about space. There was a lecture beforehand that I don’t remember anything about. But when I looked through the telescope for the first time and saw the comet, I was amazed. I realized that the night sky is not simply a dome with some fixed lights on it, but rather is a view into three-dimensional space, where things are constantly moving and changing. I knew from that moment that I wanted to know what was out there!
What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?
I’m living my childhood dream of working on a spaceship! I love doing cutting-edge planetary science research using hardware that we designed and built. I also love learning from my colleagues in a range of different disciplines. Los Alamos is home to an incredibly wide range of expertise, and my research has greatly benefitted from my interactions with experts across the laboratory.
How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
Never underestimate how powerful it can be to tell someone that STEM is for them. I never considered going to grad school until a scientist suggested that I do it. I had always loved science, but that was the first time I ever imagined myself as a professional scientist. Once I started imagining myself as that person, I was able to take the next step to make it a reality. Take the time to tell a young person that you see her as a scientist—it just may change her life.
Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
Be persistent. It takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in a field, so it will take some time before you start to feel like you know something. You will inevitably make mistakes and even fail at some things, but failure isn’t necessarily a sign that you should give up. Hard work is more important for success than talent. There will be a lot of people along the way who tell you that you aren’t capable of doing this work, but remember that it’s just their opinion, it’s not a fact. Remember that planetary science is a highly interdisciplinary field, so there are many different paths you might take to do this work. To do planetary science, we need people in many disciplines, including (but not limited to) chemists, geologists, engineers, and physicists—pursue the subject that you enjoy the most but keep learning from friends in other departments.
When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
I make time every day to do some kind of physical activity, usually high intensity interval training or yoga. I also sing in a small choral group, which is a fun way to use my brain in an entirely different way.
Learn more about our programs & resources for women and girls in STEM at http://www.energy.gov/women