Beyond Vassar

It's Physicist Wendee Brunish to the Rescue

Nuclear weapons control during office hours; wilderness rescue in the off hours; the advancement of women at all times: Wendee Brunish '75 likes to dedicate herself to big issues. At the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico, Brunish, an astrophysicist, heads a group of scientists whose mission is to develop ways to monitor nuclear weapons testing and development in foreign countries.

For the Department of Energy (DOE), she chairs a committee whose purpose is to review programs and policies for women. j Out of the office, she and her dog Miranda are members of the Los Alamos Mountain Canine Corps. Together, they rescue hikers, campers, tourists, drivers, bikers, and others swallowed up by the wild mountains of northern New Mexico. She and her dogs also visit residents in nursing homes, and she is a tireless advocate for responsible pet ownership j Brunish is so successful at her many activities that in 1995 she was awarded the Governor's Award for Outstanding New Mexico Women. The magazine exchanged e-mails with her in December.

What is your official title and job description at Los Alamos?

Program Manager, Ground-based Nuclear Explosion Monitoring Program; Office Leader, Containment and Explosion Phenomenology; Project Leader, Containment Archiving, Dynamic Experimentation Containment; and Earth and Environmental Sciences Division Diversity Coordinator Chair, Department of Energy Review of Laboratory Programs for Women.

How did you get into the field of nuclear physics?

My dad was a biochemist and my mom had been a chemistry major in college, so although they did not explicitly encourage me to be a scientist, I grew up with the implicit understanding that being a scientist was a very important and interesting career. I never seriously considered anything else. At Vassar, I started as a chemistry major, switched to physics, and then, due to the astronomy classes and encouragement and mentoring from Professor Albers, I decided to go to graduate school in astrophysics. Astrophysics is a fascinating field, but jobs are few, especially for a two-career couple. The work that I am doing now, studying nuclear explosion phenomenology, is also very interesting and has the further attraction that very few people are doing it or know anything about it.

You are actively involved in making the workplace a more healthy environment for women. Describe what it was like to be a woman scientist before changes in attitude and atmosphere began.

DOE and LANL, as well as the military organizations that we work with, are still largely male-dominated environments. At almost all of the technical meetings I go to, I am the only woman in the room. And women are treated differently. The way I describe it is the following. If a man walks into a technical meeting with scientists who do not know him, they assume that he is competent and knows his stuff unless he proves otherwise. If a woman walks into a technical meeting with scientists who do not know her, they assume that she is not competent and does not know her stuff until she proves otherwise. Although I have always eventually been accepted and found most of my male colleagues to be easy to work with, I still find that the energy I have to expend to overcome the initial resistance to be very draining. To this day I still have to prove myself every time I enter a new arena. I look forward to the day when there are enough women scientists and engineers involved in all fields so that we no longer have to prove ourselves on a case by case basis.

Your work focuses on nuclear threats. You are a woman in a male-dominated field. And in your spare time, you do search and rescue work with your dogs. Isn't that a lot of stress?

Yes, stress, stress, stress, all the time. The thing that helps me manage stress the best is the sheer happiness and exuberance of my dogs when I play with them, walk and run with them, and train them. They just love it, and it makes me laugh to see how eager they are to learn and do things. Also, my husband, Steve Becker, has a great sense of humor and always makes me laugh. He is very understanding when the phone rings in the middle of the night or I disappear with no notice to go out on a search or on a disaster search deployment for several days. I have gone on searches on Valentine's Day, on Thanksgiving, and on Christmas Eve, and he has never once complained.

Do you think that as a result of your work, the world is a safer place?

Yes, I do. For years, our work in the containment of underground nuclear tests assured that we would be able to continue to test our nuclear weapons as long as the government deemed it was necessary to do so for the purposes of having a credible nuclear arsenal as a deterrent to nuclear war, while ensuring that our nuclear tests did not pose threats to people or the environment. Our current work is designed to ensure that other governments cannot conduct militarily significant nuclear tests that would allow them to develop nuclear weapons (if they do not already have them) or to improve them (if they already do).

What do you plan for the future?

One area that I feel is very important and on which I would like to work is the area of finding and characterizing underground facilities. The facilities of interest are ones where weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, or nuclear) or their components, or conventional weapons or delivery systems (e.g., missiles) are being built or stored. Developing missile-launched nuclear weapons is a complex and expensive undertaking, but chemical and biological weapons can be developed cheaply and easily by small terrorist organizations. We need to learn how to locate and neutralize such operations. This is a big challenge for the future.