“This giant cloud of knowledge that you have as a scientist, what happens if that just goes away one day?”
Lisa Danielson, '98 MS Geoscience, found herself asking that question when she was going through chemotherapy in 2011.
Today, Danielson is the director of the Center for Space and Earth Sciences and the NASA program manager for discovery science and new missions at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Ten years ago, doctors gave her a 50-50 chance of survival after she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, a rare, aggressive form of the disease.
“Chemo is rough and if you are eating neurotoxic chemicals for six months, then you have something happen to you,” Danielson said. “I emerged from treatment thinking, ‘I’m alive, but holy sh*t what happened to my brain?’ Chemo brain is a very real thing.
“I assessed my strengths and interests to see what would happen. I knew that I couldn’t do science in the same way that I had been for 20 years of my life.”
She stepped away from the laboratory for the first time in her career and instead pursued roles in leadership and management. “Every time I do a new thing, I think, ‘Is this going to be my career? I don’t know, let’s try it!’” Danielson laughed. By stepping into more leadership roles, Danielson embodied what she sees as one of a scientist’s most important attributes: persistence.
“Your aptitude as a scientist is great, but that is going to be a lot less important in your workplace. Persistence and tenacity are much more important, as is working on a team.”
When asked about advice for students entering the fields of STEM and management, Danielson has much more to say. In fact, she said she could give advice for “hours and hours.”
Danielson said she always is looking for ways to give back to UNLV, and presenting at the Alumni Leadership Speaker Series is just one way she’s offered her time and expertise to the UNLV community. When tasked with mending a gap in the trained workforce at the Johnson Space Center, she helped develop the Jacobs Graduate Semester Internship. Danielson partnered with UNLV and brought multiple graduate students in as interns, many of whom are now working for NASA full time.
Danielson credits UNLV’s stellar geoscience faculty for not only her success, but also her desire to give back to the school. Those mentors include professor Wanda Taylor as well as Rodney Metcalf and Gene Smith, professors emeriti.
“If I can give people opportunities, then that’s all I really care about at the end of the day,” Danielson said. “I don’t need to point to my name on a big fancy plaque. If I can make a difference for people, then that’s what really matters.”
Danielson now oversees project development and student fellowships at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “We seek out projects that are very high risk, that have never been tried, that someone just wants to explore,” she said.
Ever the encourager and innovator, Danielson mused that as long as she’s “using [her] powers for good,” she’s happy and fulfilled.