|Dr. Terry C. Wallace Jr.
Principal Associate Director of Global Security at Los Alamos National Laboratory and New Mexico Tech, Class of 1978
“I was the chief scientist. Now, I’m the ‘head spy,’” Wallace said. “I went from a strong science-based organization to one that executes all missions related to global security. My directorate’s focus is largely international intelligence and protection against nuclear threats. Our mission at LANL uses cutting-edge science to solve the world’s hardest problems.”
Wallace will be speaking at 5 p.m. Friday, April 13, in the Fidel Ballroom. The public is invited to his keynote address, as well as to the rest of the Symposium.
Wallace was involved in research as an undergraduate at New Mexico Tech; and he sees the value in having a Student Research Symposium at the university.
“First and foremost, you need great research skills, but scientists won’t meet their potential unless they have communication skills,” Wallace said. “And you can’t teach that without putting them in the theater to perform. Those lessons are best codified in actually having meaningful interactions with other researchers and the general public.”
Dr. Van Romero, Vice President of Research at Tech, said he’s pleased to have a Tech graduate – and a former classmate – speaking at this inaugural event.
“Terry is one of the most influential people at Los Alamos National Laboratory,” Romero said. “He understands the importance of being able to communicate scientific work to the general public. That’s why he’s so interested in supporting this event.”
Wallace said presenting research or designing projects at a student symposium can help set a student apart as well. Los Alamos National Laboratory has the largest population of post-doctoral researchers in the nation and receives more than 10,000 applications each year.
“They all look alike. They all have great credentials,” he said. “What makes one applicant stand out from another is something extra … and experience from a research symposium can show that a student is much more effective at communicating.”
Additionally, the event is an effective advertisement for the larger research body that is made up of New Mexico Tech students and faculty, he said.
“New Mexico Tech is a jewel,” he said. “When the Governor asks me about funding science at universities, I tell her that Tech is a jewel. You have this unexpected institution in the desert half way between Albuquerque and Las Cruces and it’s producing great scientists and the state needs to realize that.”
Wallace said he is asked often about how students can develop leadership skills, but that there’s no easy answer.
“You have to be a specialist and you also have to be really broad,” he said. “All scientists are better and more effective when they have breadth to their knowledge. You’re not just exploring the frontier of a narrow topic anymore when you can look at problems broadly and discuss the societal impact.”
Wallace is in charge of the directorate at Los Alamos that helps keep track of movement of nuclear materials and monitors the globe for radiological events.
“We are the U.S. intelligence community for this,” he said. “How do we track and tag material? We provide science solutions to non-proliferation. We develop new technologies to collect data and interpret data about nuclear ambitions around the world. Our researchers use a broad base of scientific knowledge from many disciplines to accomplish our mission.”
Wallace said that nuclear manufacturers produce about 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of plutonium every week. Nearly all of that is used in fuel rods for commercial nuclear reactors.
“When you think of the problems we face as a global community with all this material accumulating, then you realize that nuclear effects present real science challenges,” he said.
Wallace is a native New Mexican, now living in his hometown of Los Alamos. In the early 1970s, when he was considering universities, New Mexico Tech wasn’t his original choice. He had wanted to go to Cal Tech, but as one of five children, the high cost of Cal Tech precluded him from heading West.
“That was the best thing that happened to me,” Wallace said. “Tech wasn’t my first choice, but it turned out to be the best choice.”
Some of his fondest memories are from his first semester in Socorro. He said he was intimidated at first, but soon found a home, thanks to enthusiastic professors who challenged students to solve problems and gave them room to make mistakes.
“Al Sharples in math is one of the most incredible teachers,” Wallace said. “He’s responsible for the way I think about math. When you took a Sharples test in the mid-70s, the mean score was 12 out of 100 … but he had a method to his madness – to challenge you fully.”
Wallace got involved in research almost immediately upon arriving at Tech, working with Al Sanford’s research group in geophysics. He helped install a seismic network at what later became the Waste Isolation Pilot Program near Carlsbad. Then, twice a month, Wallace would drive to the site to collect film and identify seismic activity.
“That’s heady stuff for a freshman,” Wallace said. “It was a really exciting time. Sanford gave you the tools and the chance to do real research. Real product was produced. Given that opportunity to do something meaningful and real when you’re 17 or 18, I realized that I needed to understand why I’m taking an analysis class or a Kent Condie class.
“I was in all these classes with 10 or 11 people and it allowed me to learn how to swim,” he said. “Almost uniformly, the teaching at New Mexico Tech was really outstanding.”
After earning his two bachelor’s, Wallace matriculated to Cal Tech, where he earned his master’s and doctorate, both in geophysics.
Wallace then spent 20 years as a professor of geosciences and an associate in the applied mathematics program at the University of Arizona before returning to Los Alamos in 2003. In addition to teaching, he carried out research on global threat reduction, nonproliferation verification, and computational geophysics.
Romero said, “I hope Tech students realize that Terry came from a background similar to a large number of our students. He took his Tech education and has risen to the top of his profession.”
He had a few words of advice to today’s Techies: “I’d remind people that it may be painful, but you’re only at Tech for a short time, so take advantage of it. It’s hard to overburden yourself, but the amount of opportunities at Tech is really large, so fill those days.”
The general public is welcome to attend the student poster presentations from 9 to 11:30 a.m. and the oral presentations from noon to 4:30 p.m. President Lopez will be giving a welcome in Fidel Ballroom A/B at 11:45 a.m. The event is free.
– NMT –
By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech