Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Calling the Shots

Tanza Lewis
Tanza Lewis

Operating the National Ignition Facility is no easy task; just ask Tanza Lewis. As one of four NIF shot directors, Lewis knows first-hand that working cohesively with other teams is key to making sure the shots are successful. She admits that her job can be stressful at times, but her calm and composed nature helps her and her teams cope with schedule pressures and other demands of the job.


Tanza Lewis grew up in Orange County, California, enjoying endless summer days and a supportive family. She learned early on in elementary school that she liked science and math, and soon after in junior high she began to focus on chemistry. Although her parents did not have a science background, they gave her the encouragement she needed to begin her career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

She recalls being influenced early on by a childhood friend whose aunt, Terry Land, worked at LLNL. Land, now the deputy principal associate director for NIF & Photon Science, would mentor young Tanza when she visited. “She was a great role model,” Lewis says.

Lewis began her collegiate career at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, on an academic and sports scholarship. But after a year she realized her passion was shifting from softball pitching to science, which required her full-time attention.

A keen problem solver as a kid, she fell in love with the idea of “coming up with a right and a wrong answer,” she says, and she began exploring physical chemistry, quantum mechanics, atomic structure, and how electrons and other subatomic particles interacted. Further on, school counselors, professors, and mentors helped pave her way to graduate school and her PhD.

While attending UC Irvine for her graduate studies, Lewis had the opportunity to spend time in Germany, working as a graduate research associate on experiments at synchrotron accelerator facilities, mainly in Berlin. These experiences were “fun and engaging,” she says. Her research included using and maintaining a liquid microjet vacuum chamber at the soft x-Ray U41 Permanent Magnet Undulator beamline at the Berlin Electron Storage Ring Society for Synchrotron Radiation (BESSY) synchrotron facility. And with her love for problem solving, she was able to apply her classroom knowledge, navigate around obstacles, and face real-time problems in an actual experiment.

Lewis received her PhD in physical chemistry in 2011, and with her academics behind her, she set her sights on a national laboratory.

Working at a national lab appealed to her not only because she had been mentored by a Lab employee in her youth, but also because “there is big science, big ideas happening at this level,” she says. She saw it as a place with a variety of opportunities, different projects and people, and a work/life balance, which really appealed to her. And LLNL was an ideal location, close to home and her family.

Tanza Lewis Verifies Gas FillTanza Lewis completes the final verification of a capsule gas fill in the NIF target positioner manifold. This check ensures that the target and gas fill conform to the shot setup and the Safety Basis Administrative Controls list of approved target/fill combinations.

Lewis attributes much of her interest in NIF to her mentor Terry Land, who introduced her to the idea of working at NIF. This was later solidified by a tour of the facility. “I fell in love with NIF and wanted to be a part of it,” she recalls. As she moved into her new role as layered shot responsible scientist and layering subject matter expert with NIF in 2011, she found her responsibilities to be nothing short of extraordinary. As part of the team that grows the delicate layers of deuterium-tritium ice inside NIF inertial confinement fusion targets, she had a daily responsibility to study and carry out the demanding growth of these layers. As NIF processes evolved, she trained several other personnel in the cryogenics operations group to perform the layer growth; she began her shot-director training soon thereafter.

Since starting her training in 2013, Lewis has been part of the NIF shot director team, helping ensure the successful execution of complex experiments in the facility. Working for a facility that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, requires “dealing with issues that come up, making quick decisions, and always putting safety first,” she says.

Shot directors are the single point of contact for many of the teams involved in NIF shot operations and are in charge of safely and efficiently executing each experiment. Things don’t always go as planned and this, Lewis says, is what keeps her engaged. She enjoys the excitement, the challenges, the fast pace, and working on issues or solving problems that arise.

Lewis enjoys her day in the Control Room with her team: about 14 Control Room operators, a lead operator, and Target Area teams. As the point of contact for those teams, she helps coordinate their activities in order to successfully execute the shot.

“The hours can be challenging,” Lewis admits, but her schedule also gives her the opportunity to spend time at home with her children, and she enjoys the flexibility. “I love being a mom,” she says. And on days not spent at the Lab, she enjoys children’s playgroups, story time, and family life.

March 2016