Unica Viramontes is the first woman at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) to be named senior director of the Lab’s Defense Security Program (DFS).
LANL is under constant heavy patrol and surveillance by armored vehicles, guards, guns, gates and drones, among other protective measures.
“Our threats are constantly evolving,” Viramontes said. “We have to anticipate what the next threat will be and how to stop it.”
Since taking the post in May 2019, Viramontes has focused on building solid and effective teams with a staff that includes ex-military personnel and contractors.
DFS provides expertise, supports and guidance in all areas of security — from classification to personnel security and especially nuclear material and accountability.
DFS sometimes loans out its subject matter experts to other institutions. Viramontes was part of a team recognized this year for its pioneering effort to counter unauthorized unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that cross into the Lab’s restricted airspace and an additional FAA-designated “No Drone Zone.”
A native of Abiquiú, New Meixco, Viramontes studied mass communications at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dream, influenced by an older brother who played college football, was to work as an ESPN broadcaster. She felt sure she could hold her own in the male-dominated field of sports broadcasting if she could get her foot in the door.
Following graduation from UC, the “stars aligned” for Viramontes but in an unexpected direction. With her university diploma came an invitation to join LANL’s Security organization as a permanent, full-time employee, and she took it.
During high school, Viramontes had worked at LANL under the guidance of Sharon Eklund, the only female manager in the Security Division at the time. Through the UC Office of the President, Viramontes was able to continue work for Eklund while she completed her degree, and that connection led to her LANL job offer.
Viramontes worked her way up the chain of command by learning everything she could about security, starting off in communications. From there, she migrated directly to the field, working as a security officer, security assessment specialist, program specialist, and program manager.
She knew that in order to advance in this field, she needed to learn all aspects of safeguards and 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,” she said.
Viramontes said her management style is based on what she learned from extraordinary role models throughout her LANL career. “Always be humble and kind” is a mantra she holds onto from former Associate Director Mike Lansing, who showed her what it looks like to value relationships and be a champion for your team.
She 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 said. “And that’s where her communications skills really pay off.”