We sat down with Dr. Tammy Ma, an experimental physicist at the National Ignition Facility, to talk about what motivates her, why she loves science, her belief in giving back, and advice for younger scientists.
Motivation and work ethic
My mother, unfortunately, didn’t get the chance to finish high school or go to college because she emigrated to Canada as a teenager. So it’s always been instilled in both me and my younger brother that education is really important. It’s something my Mom always felt really bad that she had missed out on. Our parents never pressured us, but always told us to work as hard as we could. My mom never hoped for us to be rich or famous, but just to have a career that you love but hopefully also allows you to have a stable, comfortable lifestyle. She’s quite proud of us now that we’ve achieved that. But I think she’s more proud that we’re both really, really passionate about the jobs that we do (my brother is a physicist too—hah!) and we get to contribute to expanding our scientific knowledge. To her that’s a really cool thing that she’s engendered children that are now able to give back to society in that strange scientific way.
Science is a fit
Science definitely fits my personality because it’s very straightforward and unemotional. I like the fact that you work toward uncovering the facts to get to the straight truth. It’s like doing math in school—there is always going to be a right answer. It might take a lot of creativity to get to that point. It might take a lot of missteps to get to that point. But in the end you’re searching for the truth. And once you figure that out, that helps explain a lot of other different parts. I like the way it all falls together and makes a lot of sense. It brings order to the rest of the chaotic world around me.
Work here at the Lab
We all acknowledge that ignition is a really difficult, challenging problem that we’re working on. Everything we’re doing is kind of on the forefront. We’ve never built targets of this size and to these crazy specifications before, and we’ve never done physics at these densities, these temperatures, these extreme conditions. We’re really pushing new envelopes all the time, so if something goes wrong we’re not blaming each other—it’s just physics, it’s nature and that’s what we're trying to figure out. The only way you can do it is to work together—it’s a huge team effort.
My part of the process, most daysI’m an experimental physicist, so I like being in the lab. I like touching things and setting up experiments and diagnostics. We don’t really get to do as much of that any more, simply because NIF is just running at full speed and we have shots every day that we have to set up and prepare for. Most of my work right now is pretty much done on the computer.
We’ll have a meeting with designers, experimentalists and (experimental) campaign leaders and we decide what we’re going to do on NIF, in terms of taking the next step toward ignition or alpha heating (where the fusion reactions start to become self-sustaining) or another mission-based project. Together, we’ll come up with an idea for an experiment and the designers will go off and try to model it to see if it makes sense, and then the experimentalists will come up with a way to set it up on the NIF. I’m an experimentalist, so a lot of my job right now in developing and executing our experiments involves setting the shot up online through our NIF (information technology) tools, to get fed into the NIF system. Once everything is set up, we take the shot and then data comes back in and we spend time analyzing and trying to understand and interpret the data. Once we have that, we get back together as a big group and figure out what the next step might be. It’s a continuous cycle, but it’s fun.
Science with a purpose
What I love about working at Livermore is that we do science with a purpose. Whether it’s National Security, or energy research, or climate change, it’s all stuff that has an angle and an angle that’s actually achievable. You bring together really great people to work on this really difficult project. It’s all really big science—it’s not one single scientist in his or her own little lab that can figure it out. You need big teams and a lot of resources and you need support from the scientific community and the government, and you get all that here. Hopefully what we do has a positive impact on society and human life.
One of my good friends doesn’t talk about trying to find work-life balance, but “work-work” balance. Which I think is really funny, but also really apt. Because when you have a job you love and are really passionate about it, there’s work that is maybe the eight hours a day you’re here. But then there’s the other work when you don’t have to be here, but you still are because you care. You want to get it done and do a good job, and you’re motivated to because it excites you.
I do believe in work-life balance, but that balance doesn’t stay constant throughout your career. There are times when work takes a larger fraction and other times when life is a little heavier and requires more focus. But for me work-work balance at the moment is probably pretty true.
A tradition of giving back
I was a summer intern here at the Lab between high school and college. I had a mentor who I was working with on mapping out the Kuiper belt in the outer solar system—kind of a planetary search. One evening before a late-night telescopic observation run, we went out to dinner in downtown Livermore and when we were done, I tried to pay for my half. But what he said to me was, “No, no, no, let me do this. It’s an honor for me to be able to buy dinner for someone younger than me and I hope that you continue to do that as well.” That really, really touched me and it’s something I try to do now by paying it forward.
So, every summer I try to mentor a summer student, not only to expose them to research experience but to expose them to what it’s like to work at a national lab—to help them know whether or not they like science and if it’s a life for them. Even if they hate it, that’s a very important thing for them to learn early on. I tell them that I hope what you take from this experience is that mentoring younger students and early career scientists is really important and I hope you do the same in your career.
I also do a lot of community outreach, because I feel it’s incredibly important to communicate the science that we do, and to hopefully encourage young kids. But I also do it partly because I’m selfish and I enjoy it. It’s a lot of fun to be able to brag about what we do here on the NIF, but it’s also fulfilling and rewarding to maybe be able to influence young minds—kind of set a little seed in them that science is really cool. Most years I participate in Expanding Your Horizons (local science festivals for young girls) and do a lot of talks about the NIF in the community.
When I was young, growing up in Fremont, California, my parents would take me to Science on Saturdays here at the Lab and I actually remember a talk on the NIF. I certainly didn’t understand all of it, but I thought it was cool and now full circle, here I am.
To de-stress or de-frustrate I go shopping. I like shopping. And it gets me excited to get out of my office and just go walk around on my own—to see things, to touch things, and buy shoes.
How many pairs of shoes do you have?
Because you asked, I went and counted. I have 58 pairs of shoes, not including flip-flops.
How many pairs of flip-flops do you have?I’m a California girl so I have a lot. I think I went through my entire college career in Southern California only wearing flip-flops.
My favorite place to goChicago. I love Chicago. It’s like a short trip—you can do it on the weekends. There is great food, the architecture is amazing. The Art Institute is one of my favorite museums in the world. And good shopping too. It’s just so much fun. But I wouldn’t live there. Actually, I would if you could pick up NIF and move it over to Chicago. But since we can’t, I’m pretty happy living here.
Advice for younger scientists
What I tell young scientists—hey, I’m still young—younger scientists or students in school is that science is hard. It is challenging. That’s the fundamental of science. If you like it, if you enjoy it, just stick with it. There are going to be times when your grades are not going to turn up super great, you’ll have failures in the lab, and it might seem like it’s easier to switch to a different topic or major. Science will continuously challenge you. It has to—if it doesn’t, it’s not science. Just stick with it.
Video:Tammy describes the lure of cutting-edge science, the enjoyment of collaborating with world-class researchers at a national laboratory, the anticipation while waiting for the results of an experiment—and her ambition to become an astronaut.