Experiences of women in nuclear policy during the Covid-19 pandemic

Lifelines is a collection of personal reflections about the experiences of nuclear policy and technical practitioners during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic (2020 - 2021). Many of these stories come from women in the field who, like everyone else, suffered the immediate physical and mental strain of this crisis: fear of widespread illness and death; the loneliness of lockdown; and the exhaustion from a frenetic lifestyle that collapsed the boundary between personal and professional space. Yet they also wrestle with biases and challenges — as nuclear experts who double as mothers, or junior and mid-careers reckoning with gender barriers reinscribed in virtual, socially-distant work environments — that complicate their vision of a secure future for the world and for themselves.

Introduction by Lovely Umayam
Illustrations by Elisa Reverman
Essays by Victoria Wu  || Anu Damale || Chantell Murphy || Ana Velasco
Anecdotes from the Gender Champions for Nuclear Policy
Gendered Impacts of Covid-19 Survey.

“Since the space in which both civic and private life is lived has become so indistinguishable from inner and outer, from inside/outside, these two realms have been compressed into ubiquitous blur, a rattling of our concept of home.”

— Toni Morrison, The Foreigner’s Home


Lovely Umayam


2022 UPDATE: This project was completed before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The horrors of war – the uncertain fate of millions of Ukrainians and defiant Russians, as well as the unknown ways this act of violence will impact the future of diplomacy and conflict – further complicated humanity’s story in the new millennia, an experience already weighed down by the grief and isolation from the Covid-19 pandemic. As this war rages, it does not erase what came before. Especially for those who work in international security, it is tempting to bury the struggles of the last two years as “the past” to make room for the work necessary to secure the present and the future. For some, this has meant showing up to work as experts without fully processing how they have changed as individuals.  In light of these events, "Lifelines" as a project takes on an additional purpose: a reminder that our struggles today do not invalidate the struggles of yesterday, and that our professional goals are intimately tied to a continuum of care and dignity we deserve as human beings.

As we piece together the fragments of our lives in this pandemic reality, a new portrait emerges. The pandemic made us realize how deeply overworked we are because we’ve confused productivity for our life’s purpose. It reminded us that while we surrender our attention to computer screens, we cannot survive without the tenderness of physical connection. It revealed the vulnerabilities and anxieties we all carry, and that some more than others have taken heavier burdens unseen and unrecognized by society. It also forced us to think about the true meaning of security.

For too long we’ve parsed and separated the different elements of security to make sense of the world. There is, of course, personal security: the necessities and identities that we have or we lack in our private lives, which shape our daily decisions and ambitions. We are also bound to a higher order of security, the result of complex forces — of countries, of regions, of alliances, of economies — that are bigger than our individual selves. Crises, may it be war, environmental catastrophe, or a pandemic, illuminate how these different dimensions of security are hopelessly entangled, forming either solid ground underneath our feet or a flimsy net barely holding our weight.

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Political theorist J. Ann Tickner observed that women are often the first casualties of hardship, and the firsts to lose or sacrifice security during great upheavals.1Tickner, J. Ann. 1992. Gender in international relations: feminist perspectives on achieving global security. New York: Columbia University Press. Hence, women’s lives offer a glimpse into structural violence that pierces through the global and the local, from the private to the public. Tickner proved prescient; during the Covid-19 pandemic that began in 2020, a majority of working women, especially women of color, in the United States took on “essential” positions that are undervalued and underpaid, but served as a major lifeline during the harshest phase of the global lockdown. Mothers left the workforce in droves — one survey in 2021 estimates 8 million women since the beginning of the pandemic — due to increased demands to support their families. Black and Hispanic girls assumed more adult responsibilities at home, including educating younger siblings in quarantine. Even women in senior, corporate positions traded their careers for humbler vocations after social distancing and telework rendered the extra effort to fight for workplace parity — the clarion call to “lean in” a decade ago — too exhausting and futile in the face of a global health crisis. The pandemic did not break the gendered frameworks that, as philosopher Kate Manne argues, expect women to supply feminine-coded forms of care that are not considered as authoritative or leadership work. While the world recalculated risk, redefined security, and rebuilt a new sense of normalcy, many women are still stuck with the same antiquated terms and conditions that force them to negotiate between self-care and selfless service in their personal and professional capacities.

For women working on global security issues like nuclear policy, the collapse of the private and public space not only caused logistical hardship of juggling work from home, but also created an internal struggle where different security considerations collide. Women show up at work and think about nuclear threats and missile tests while the emergence of Covid variants continue to disrupt their lives; their bodies and rights are publicly controlled and debated; and other essential aspects of their personhood — ethnic, racial, and religious identities, even attempts to break away from the construct of the gender binary itself  — are belittled, even attacked, by the very society they are protecting. Yet their workplaces, may it be government, academia, or non-profit organizations, are ill-equipped to understand and support such a complex lived experience. As national security expert Heather Hulburt put bluntly, women in the nuclear field still mold themselves to fit structures and modes of thinking that have been shaped and maintained by men. Anything that does not fit is deemed irrelevant and tucked away.2Hurlburt, Heather et al. 2019. The “Consensual Straitjacket”: Four Decades of Women in Nuclear Security. New America - Political Reform Report. 

Lifelines, a collection of short anecdotes and essays, encourages readers to reflect on the distinct, intersectional experience of all types of women during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic (2020 - 2021), and how the cumulative impact of this experience on women’s minds and bodies also changes the meaning of “security” work. By centering personal narrative, Lifelines follows scholar Monica Thakur’s autobiographical approach to international relations (IR), an exercise that retrieves the power of the lived experience “to counter traditional academic spaces, disrupt the image of who is an academic...and unsettle binaries and identities.”3Thakur, Monika. 2021. Navigating Multiple Identities: Decentering International Relations, International Studies Review, Volume 23, Issue 2, Pages 409–433. In the following sections, we aim to do the same for the nuclear policy practitioner: each account is a legitimate and valuable scholarship for nuclear security organizations and institutions as they consider how to improve workplace cultures and research practices in the wake of Covid-19.

About the Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy Covid-19 Survey

Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy is a leadership network that brings together heads of organizations working in nuclear policy who are committed to break down gender barriers and make gender equity a working reality in their spheres of influence. Drawing on a growing body of economic and social science research showing that COVID-19 had exacerbated societal inequity, GCNP set out to explore the pandemic’s impact on the nuclear policy community. Through a survey launched in the first quarter of 2021, GCNP gathered data and anonymous anecdotes describing the experiences of nuclear policy professionals working through the pandemic’s first year. Findings were shocking, showing that the pandemic had disproportionately affected the lives and livelihoods of different women.

Out of the total of 231 respondents representing employees from different sectors that engage in nuclear policy work (NGO, government contractor, private industry, academia, among others), 66% identified as women, 29% as men, and 2% as gender variant / non-conforming. Some are in the early and mid stages of their careers, but most respondents (81%) have more than ten years of experience.  More demographic information, as well as detailed survey results can be found here.

This project acknowledges womanhood in its most expansive definition, as gender categories can and do change overtime. The project also recognizes the limitations of the data, and encourages future work that examines specific gendered challenges and barriers that impact LGBTQ representation and work experiences in the nuclear policy field.

The anecdotes below — a selection from the GCNP survey — have been shortened and lightly edited for clarity. They are paired with longer reflection essays written by four women working in the nuclear policy field.

...I'm just grossly overcommitted and haven't mentally been able to allow myself to slow down…

The lack of boundaries between personal and professional time has undermined my ability and reset…

...As an Executive Director I never feel like I can take a break as there never stops being "critical" demands for my time.... some cases, the outside stresses of the pandemic damaged my reputation as being someone who always goes above and beyond to get the job done…

…The nuclear field works so hard to feel relevant that smarter ways to genuinely engage non-experts are lost, as more people in the field focus on media, panel, and press appearances. I've begun to wonder if there's truly space in the security field for people to tell stories as humans…

Over 50% of women were concerned that the pandemic would have a negative impact on their prospects for professional advancement (less than one third of the men felt the same way)

Time Warp

Victoria Wu


Time reflects change, an unstoppable force. I’ve often dreamt about how wonderful it would be to turn back time; stop the countdown of the clock. Yet I have lived through a point of no return. My pre-pandemic life is gone. With its sudden disappearance, I am grappling with how to protect my internal selfhood, and how to forge a new sense of self now that all my connections to a familiar rhythm of life have severed.

I remember reading the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ announcement in January 2020 that they had moved The Doomsday Clock 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it had ever been since its inception in 1947.4Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist. Doomsday Clock. The clock was created to symbolize humanity’s proximity to literal destruction, and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists continue to "set" the clock's time each year to approximate how close the world is courting danger. By its most recent measure, we had less than two minutes left before midnight, the metaphor for universal catastrophe. In their explanation, they highlighted the looming twin crises of climate change and nuclear war. I read this with equal measures of agreement and dread, but also partial relief: there’s nowhere to go but up!

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Two months later, the pandemic hit and threw my life into disarray. My work schedule, my personal life, and my outlook on life all shifted overnight. My psychological stress was immense, knocking me off balance, inside and out. The invisible, mental weight of trying to survive and stay healthy, day in and day out, drained me. I thought I was keeping it together, but my body could not lie.

In April, while on-camera during a Zoom call with friends, I noticed a peculiar white spot at the crown of my head. My fingers instinctively reached up to my scalp and felt an unexpected, leathery texture, but I didn’t think much of it. After the call, I examined myself in the mirror, and to my shock, I discovered that a chunk of my hair had completely fallen out. A bald patch of white scalp, the size of a quarter, stared back at me;  smooth and barren, set in stark contrast against my otherwise dark hair. The dermatologist I consulted offered no solutions. Occurrences of alopecia, he explained, were inherently unpredictable. Sometimes, especially in times of acute stress,  a body begins to attack its own hair follicles. No one could predict how or when my hair would grow back. This diagnosis manifested a recurrent theme for my year: loss of control in the face of the vagaries of existence. I was again reminded that I had control over nothing, not even routine bodily functions.

My hair loss capped off months of intense and acute physical dysregulation. Since the Covid lockdown began, my mental chaos accompanied broader societal dysregulation. My skin became easily irritated, as did my mood. I desperately craved reassurance and care, but I also felt guilty for having needs at all, when so many others were going without. By all external markers, I was fine. I was employed, healthy, single (with no dependents), and my parents were also healthy, halfway across the country. But inside, life never felt fine.

Analytical by nature, I sought solace in information. Yet the endless stream of bad news only drove me further into despair, and raised more questions than answers. The day I found my bald spot was the day my body screamed unequivocally, “You are not OK.” Here it was, plain as day on the top of my head, a physical and metaphysical marker of turbulence. Was this curable? Would it grow back? Most importantly, could I heal?

Life became a river of worries, and a constant struggle to juggle streams of competing needs. In my professional life, I was ad libbing a new project management role, taken on right before lockdown began. On paper, it was the opportunity I was looking for. But in reality, I felt incapable of unfurling my wings to meet the demands of this big assignment. My task had an ambitious scope but a humble budget, and in the constant struggle to balance the two, I found myself perpetually questioning my vision, my capabilities, and my potential. Covid, which hit in the middle of this project, added a new nagging fear: will I even survive?

They say that the personal is always political. As the pandemic wore on, my personal struggles began to feel like a thread woven in the tapestry of national struggle. It became hard to see where one set of issues ended and where another began, as the pandemic melded into other struggles around racial justice, national politics, and geopolitics. By summer, the discriminatory consequences of the pandemic felt close to home. On the nightly news, reports of racialized violence, especially against Chinese-Americans like myself, began to trend. The Atlanta shooting targeting Asian women, and the broader inability to explicitly name this act of racism and sexism, further reflected a fragmenting reality.

At work, routine topics also fell to previously unimaginable lows. U.S.-China relations, which I am personally and professionally interested in, sank to a nadir around mutual hostility over trade, supply chain, COVID-19 origins, and military issues. Debates raged over Great Power Competition, and rising U.S. case counts crashed into the waves of violence engulfing Asian-Americans, melding into a sea of tensions interpersonally and internationally. In time, every element of my identity as a second-generation, Chinese-American woman working in national security seemed to be viewed as either socially and politically threatening, or was socially and politically threatened. Funny how the virus is indiscriminate in its infectious potential, but the most vulnerable remained the same: women, children, people of color, the poor,  the elderly, and the immunocompromised.

In time, my hair has begun to grow back, reappearing as unexpectedly as it had disappeared. Nearly two years into this pandemic,I’ve settled in awkwardly, like my regrown hair. The pandemic has been a mirror, reflecting a piece of wisdom back to me: embrace your futility. Little is in my control, from the root of my hair and beyond. But paradoxically, living through a pandemic, in an existential era 100 seconds before midnight, I have also learned to hope. I am surviving.

Today, I struggle to live gracefully in the in-between, the space where I can accept that my pre-pandemic life will never return, and trust that my body and I can learn a new way of being in an uncertain future. Mind and body struggle daily against physical and existential discomfort. It’s now 2022, and The Doomsday Clock remains 100 seconds to midnight. Framed another way, however, it has not moved closer to midnight. Even in this precarious stage, as we teeter on the cliff of existence, I survive.

86% of reductions in work hours among women were due to increased care work.

…The nuclear policy community consistently fails to recognize the challenges of balancing work and childcare. Saying "I'm sorry, but I don't have time to do that" is viewed as a lack of commitment to the field, not an understanding that there are limited hours in the day...

…having double roles [as caregiver and worker] mean that women's voices and perceived credibility can get lost, unconsciously or consciously critiqued as offering less. This could have longer term implications even post pandemic for careers…

…My kids were doing school from home while I was working. When I express concerns at work, my manager glosses over them and offers to give my responsibilities to someone else. That is not what I want… some cases, the outside stresses of the pandemic damaged my reputation as being someone who always goes above and beyond to get the job done…

1 in 4 women and 1 in 3 men indicated that the pandemic had caused them to consider a career change and leave the nuclear policy field

…I applied to over 100 internships, fellowships, and jobs before I got the opportunity I have now. I had to work in a bakery to be able to pay rent, despite the fact that I have pre-existing conditions that make me particularly susceptible to getting severe COVID…

…Right before I got this internship, I thought I was going to have to choose between my heart field & the ability to financially survive. I am terrified that I will have to make that choice again when this comes to an end...

…I have found it really difficult to find a job as a new professional straight out of college, and it seems like an impossible feat when my networking all happens over Zoom and I don't feel like I'm part of the community…

…being early career, there’s no knowing what this will mean for future employment opportunities, how this will inevitably change the [work] landscape…there is no real explanation or adjustment period on how we are expected to adapt to these new norms…

A Pandemic Sonata, Opus 1

Anuradha Damale


Music — how I listen to it; the places where I’ve randomly encountered or intentionally played it; the emotions that ebb and flow in the course of a song — anchored me during a tumultuous pandemic experience. Throughout the pandemic, I found myself struggling to focus on work because it felt so pointless. Why wasn’t I using my time and energy towards helping others survive with the immediate threat of the pandemic instead of focusing on something as existential as working on nuclear weapons? But I would sing along musicals to help me find the rhythm and keep going. When my dad suffered a stroke last June, I played beautiful choral music aloud to cover up my sadness. I followed each therapy session with Stormzy as a way to let go and decompress. When I met my partner Theo, it was during long meandering walks with Phoebe Bridgers’ feathery voice on headphones, which helped me open up and allow me to feel joy and love again.

During the pandemic, music became my lifeline. This is my sonata.

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March 2020 was, by all measures, a time of personal and professional milestones for me.  By that time, I had finally settled into a job and feeling financially stable enough to move out from my childhood home, and live with people my age I didn’t know. I felt ready to establish space away from a loving, but often overbearing Indian family to be able to figure out who I am as an independent individual. I had also just overcome a six-month period denying my depression, and was waiting to find out my place in the waitlist for a therapist. It was everything I thought I needed.

But the pandemic derailed my plans to work on self-care and self-awareness. Could it have given me a moment to stop and breathe? I was faced with many empty evenings sitting alone. As a way to ignore the building anxiety around infections and lockdowns,  I set up a tiny desk and committed myself to work.

I’d been in my job for two months at the time of work-from-home. This was my first job working on nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament and on space security and policy. Unexpectedly, I would have to do all of it from the comfort of my own home. Energy unbound! How I wished that had been true. Instead, I found myself struggling to wake up for lack of motivation. I felt most motivated when I engaged directly with people by working  and learning with them.  I initially thought that this could still be done over Zoom. On the contrary: I was filled with anxiety about disappearing, and becoming another cog in the wheel. These were supposed to be the exhilarating years to find my place in the field and prove myself as a researcher and colleague. Rather, I found myself staring down my growing to-do list until I felt like I was running out of time.  I felt so disconnected I thought I’d get fired.

The worst part was, I didn’t even know how to explain my feelings or who to share them with. My mumma, who was heartbroken that I wouldn’t come to visit her, wasn’t speaking to me. She couldn’t understand that I did not want to possibly infect her and make her sick. This would remain the case for eight months. My papa, who’s business depended on travel and in-person interactions, was stressed enough as it was. As the eldest daughter of my Indian family, my job was to make their life easier, so burdening them further was not an option . I just had to buckle down, do my job, and cry to Jeff Buckley after work. Dramatic? Yes. But this was my reality. And how dare I complain, given the pain everyone else around the world was facing! No, for now, it was time for me to grin and bear it.

So, I did. Months later, I developed a routine: Wake-up, shower, make breakfast and work. I was too scared to see other people, even those who I lived with, so I'd eat my meals alone at my desk , and watch movies in bed. Self-isolating had spread to every aspect of my life. I'd muster the courage to run 3 times a week, my only dose of the outside world. For a while that was enough.



When I saw that comedian Bo Burnham released a musical comedy special filmed during quarantine,  “Inside,” I was beside myself with excitement. As a self-professed theatre kid, a musical was a welcome reprieve and source of cheer after a depressing and exhausting year into the pandemic. It  was exactly what I needed, in theory, to put a smile on my face. Something lighthearted and fun.

So I watched it.
“I can only laugh because I’ll cry if I don’t,” he sang.
And this hit me hard.

Watching “Inside”  made me realise how much I relied on  music to cope, love, and grieve during this period of unknown and isolation. As the show progressed, Burnham’s humor and radiance diminished, underscoring that his grand stage is nothing but a lonely room — a performance without an audience.This sense of derealisation resonated with me; I had become detached from my work, my family, and my friends, all because of the perpetual fear of loss.

Over the past several months, I had lost touch with the ever-social and ever-loving version of myself. The fire in my belly when it came to working on disarmament and a secure space environment was beginning to dull. It went beyond just work:  The anti-racism debates in the UK amid the Covid surge also reminded me that as a woman of colour living in a “I’m not racist, but…” country, even with centuries of oppressive history that echo today, the burden to speak up and educate would always disproportionately lie with people like me. The only constant that made me feel myself: creating playlists to express the angst.


January 2022 is, by all measures, a time of personal and professional milestones for me. It has been twenty-two months since I left my parents house. I established myself as an ‘expert’ in my field, but I still struggle to say that about myself. I am engaged, living with my incredibly kind and supportive partner and my dog, but still have insecurities about whether I am deserving of a supportive relationship. I am about to embark on a new chapter in my career, but I am filled with doubt about my own abilities.

In a way, many of my reservations and anxieties  haven’t changed over the past two years. My relationship with my family, childhood trauma, and my previously undiagnosed OCD constituted a classic trifecta of Issues ™ that was tough to navigate even during normal times.  Then, the pandemic added layers of f uncertainties that made everything feel more unmanageable. Not knowing whether I'd have a job in this socially distant, financially-precarious work environment. Not knowing if my dad would recover from his stroke. Not knowing if my mother would speak to me properly again. This isn’t just limited to me; I have seen friends, colleagues and loved ones lose their minds over what they could never know. When hearing the word “security,” the first thought was no longer “nuclear war”, or whatever I'd been researching. I could no longer define myself solely from the work I was doing. Instead, “security” became about learning how to cope with doubts that everything will work out for the best.

But for now, I can sense that a  little bit of my light is coming back. I just need to remember that in The Pandemic (Anu’s Version), and going forward, that joy and light comes from more than just my worth in the field.


As I write this, I am sitting with a fantastic fiance, a beautiful puppy yapping gently at my feet, in a gorgeous flat I share with my best friend. I embrace the waves of nostalgia, listening to music that reminds me of the good, bad, and crazy during these past two years. I am blissfully ignorant of what is to come, perhaps another possible pandemic wave, or another cancelled holiday.  As we all muster another round of optimism and finally break free from the darkest phase of the pandemic, I want to leave you with something to think about.

To the practitioners in the international security  field who have established long, successful careers: please reflect on how you would use your power to rebuild the culture of this field after two years of instability. Any shred of certainty you can provide, whether that be honesty with staff about funding their future to sustain their jobs, or what it would take to achieve an upward trajectory in the field, please consider how much this level of transparency and clarity could help. So often our field is full of people that give their lives to their jobs. The least their jobs can do is give their life some sense of direction, rather than the constant worry of what’s next.

And to the newcomers hoping to find a place in the field: I still believe that this type of work and research is amazing and worth-while. Working to solve the problems that face our entire planet is not something to just shrug off. Take a moment to reflect on why you want to do this, and what your motivations are. If you are able, be honest with your colleagues and superiors when the road to a future in the field seems unclear.  You owe it to yourself to live a healthy and happy life, however you define that,  whether that’s being a busybody, or someone with clear work-life boundaries. It took a pandemic to get me to understand what I needed for myself, and I’m not looking back.

And to those who came here for the music, enjoy.

During the pandemic, BIPOC were nearly 2x as likely to have been separated from employment and more than 2x as likely to have taken or seen colleagues take pay cuts. They are also 20% more likely to experience financial hardship due to the pandemic than non-BIPOC peers.

…All employees were forced to take 5-15% pay cuts and the management said this was necessary to avoid layoffs. Morale is very low. Everyone up to this month who left was a woman or person of color…

…The "new normal" of remote work is becoming as inflexible as in-person work. Though there is still lip service given to granting "maximum flexibility," there is also a sense that "it's been a year," and that employees need to make arrangements to be fully available…

...there is continued expectation to keep up the same level of productivity; judgement from bosses and peers for my incapability of compartmentalizing mass death and racial violence in order to get work done…

…it's increasingly difficult to maintain "a feel" for the policy environment. Things grew distant, slowed down, and became less vibrant. It's harder to feel like I'm part of a community, which makes it harder to want to remain in it…

Traversing Risk

Chantell Murphy


I was on a climbing trip in Wyoming recently. The same place where the nation had been gripped by the disappearance and murder of 22-year-old Gabby Petito. The same State where 710 Indigenous people, mostly girls, were reported missing over the past decade.

I was there to climb Guide’s Wall in Cascade Canyon at the Grand Teton National Park. The scenery was majestic: at the top, grey craggy peaks jut out in every direction, and glacier ice glistened under the sun. I saw the treetops of tall green pines, and the backs of birds gliding below the summit. Every so often, there was a thunderous boom of rocks breaking away from the cliffs as the winter ice melted. As I climbed, there were no incidents, injuries, confrontations with people or animals — just an all around good time. I was genuinely at peace.


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The odd part about feeling at ease while climbing is that it is inherently stressful. The sport comes with many risks, mainly extreme weather, but also moose and bear encounters, and rockfall. These risks are sometimes so enormous that survival simply depends on luck.

I love embarking on adventures that bring me joy, take me to wild places, challenge me both physically and emotionally, but are extremely risky. I often wonder why I gravitate towards stressful hobbies like backcountry skiing and climbing without a rope when my professional life also requires high-risk situations. Perhaps it’s because risk has always played a role in my life.

I work at a nuclear site; I live with systemic lupus erythematosus; I am the only Black and Filipino woman in my group; and I recently moved to  East Tennessee for work. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 34 hate groups in Tennessee alone, at a time when the Department of Homeland Security listed such groups as a “persistent and lethal threat in the homeland” on par with terrorism and transnational crime. My day-to-day requires risk calculations that cut across all the things I want to protect: myself, my home, my job. And with Covid, it has become even more difficult to cultivate a sense of security.


During the pandemic, I traveled to Idaho Falls, Idaho for a work trip, a place with a population of about 64,000 people, but only 0.7% Black and 1.5% Asians. During work breaks, I had the opportunity to walk around, and as I explored the town, I realized people were staring at me. I was an obvious outsider — I was no longer a nuclear expert, but a person defined by body, skin color, gender and mask. No one in town was wearing a mask which added yet another layer of fear and stress given my high-risk health status. At that moment, these traits made me insecure and feel incredibly alone. I grappled with the irony of my situation: I had traveled during a pandemic to work on nuclear security in a town that reminded me of the fragility of my own security. I wonder if my job understood the complexities of being a Black woman in these spaces where potential threats unique to my personhood exist. And if they knew, I wonder what kind of support they would have provided me as a professional?

And is it okay for me to request for support? While I have a Masters, a PhD, and ten years of work experience, I still feel like I have to prove myself among my colleagues and show up when I do not feel comfortable because my credibility is on the line. Often, I feel as though I cannot say  “no” to advocate for my own safety. Being able to say “no” is a privilege that I am not familiar with, and I do not know if I will ever feel a sense of ownership to it.

Today, there is an aggressive push to increase diversity in the nuclear field —  workshops, panels, and working groups are forming all over the United States to recruit and retain people of color. Everytime I attend these events, I bring up the question about the type of environments we are recruiting folks into: Are we bringing people, young people of color in particular, into unsafe spaces? How are we addressing the mental and emotional safety of people of color when we try to recruit them into work that traditionally excluded them, and therefore are not set up to take care of them? Why do we only focus on increasing numbers but don’t ever stop to think about whether the workplace culture supports people to show up as their full selves?

Beyond general organizational statements condemning hate crimes against Black, Indigenous, and other people of color these last two years, there is opportunity for specific, hyperlocal action. Nuclear-related organizations, laboratories, and facilities should demonstrate a deeper understanding of how their surrounding communities and demographics could impact the safety of their employees. What does it mean for organizations, labs, sites, and schools to incorporate the threats of white nationalist groups and police brutality into their risk profiles? Would it be possible to incorporate briefings for professionals sent to locations where there are high populations of hate groups? As nuclear security specialists, we need to talk about the types of environments we have to live in and go to, such that we can consider risk calculations and mitigation strategies, which could lead to an option to say “no” if it is too uncomfortable.

The nuclear field has cultivated a strong group of professionals who live and breathe security. It is embedded in the language that we use. We have grown accustomed to talking about and promoting global security, national security, physical security, safeguards and security for nuclear facilities. We think about and navigate risk for a living. After Covid and heightened racial tension across the country, the field should think deeply about ways to incorporate  personal security in its values. Nuclear professionals of color deserve supportive work environments, so that they, in turn, can grow safely in their careers,  take risks, and discover new professional pathways  that make them love what they do, and make them feel like they belong.

…It has made me think about the urgent need for widening the security lens and thinking beyond threats from other countries and groups. There seem to be challenges common across the board where all would be better off by collaborating on common solutions and improving communication…

…The pandemic  made me have internal stress over the resources consumed by the nuclear community…Although I really felt drawn to this community, I am no longer sure that the community is the best way to achieve meaningful change…

…The issues I typically address (nuclear weapons spending, arms control/disarmament, proliferation nuclear command and control, etc.) are much less relevant…They are certainly not less important to me, but it is understandably difficult to get others to care to the same (which is already hard in normal times) degree given everything that's going on…

Woman | Bullet | Virus

Ana Velasco


The word crisis is defined as “a condition of instability or danger” that permeates social, economic or political affairs and causes significant shifts in the status quo. But a crisis can also be personal — private struggles and deeply emotional events that disrupt a singular life. When both crises happen at the same time to a person, it can be a cruel form of pain. What does it mean to be secure in such a time of great upheaval?

I. Bullet

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The valley of Solís sits at a beautiful corner of the state of Mexico. Behind the mountain is the state of Michoacán, famous for its avocado production and for being the winter home of the North American Monarch butterfly. Across the river, to the north, is the state of Querétaro, the gate to the prosperous Bajío region. This valley harbors several small villages, quiet and modest settlements inhabited by the same families that have lived there for generations.  But this place also has a long tradition of migration, just like the Monarch butterflies, to the United States or Canada. It is mostly men that come and go. And it is also men, not a virus, who have radically altered the tranquility of this place.

A few months ago, a group of unidentified men armed with assault rifles and wearing camouflage uniforms arrived. In talks with locals, they have said that they came to install “order”. This meant punishing those who they believe corrupted society. Since they were seen the first time, at least three violent murders have occurred. The circumstances in which the first one happened are unclear, but the second and third were committed in broad daylight at a car workshop. The men shot the victims. The authorities took hours to arrive at the crime scene, so the bodies were left on the street for everyone to see. This display of violence communicates. The viciousness and the impunity of the murders held in the middle of the afternoon was the message. Insecurity is palpable, and in the face of such violence, the pandemic blends in the backdrop.


II. Woman

Covid caught me in Europe. At the beginning of 2020, I was doing my second Masters in the United Kingdom and during that summer of lockdown, I spent a few weeks in Germany. As this global health crisis developed and unsettled the lives of my friends and colleagues, I found myself busier than I had ever been. I was writing my final dissertation, continuing my long-distance job as a researcher for a Mexican NGO, doing my first contract as a security consultant with another NGO in Washington DC, and attending my first academic seminar. Remote learning and working allowed me to juggle all of these opportunities, and as an early-career researcher, I was elated to see my work acknowledged and praised. Doors were opening. I felt grateful to be busy, but my body felt misaligned with my mind. Deep down, I knew I could not keep up with a fast-paced rhythm for too long. I was exhausted.

When I returned to Mexico in 2021, my plans for the next five years collapsed. A research opportunity in Brazil was postponed with no clear date in sight due to Covid. I did not receive a scholarship to start my PhD, so I lost my place.  At the time, I already quit my NGO work since I knew it would be unhealthy to work under the same pressures and conditions. And although I do not regret my decision, I was left without a job, income, and clarity for my professional life. For the first few months I tried to stay positive. But as the months passed and rejections piled, my frustrations and fears spread. What if I lose my place and potential in the security field for the lack of proof that I’ve stayed productive?

Symptoms of depression started to show.


III. Virus

Until this day, the armed men are still in the valley of Solís. They chose a location in the mountain with a strategic viewpoint where they can oversee the land. Just as the uneasiness of possibly catching an invisible virus in public space, traveling across the roads of these villages makes one feel permanently observed and exposed, like living in a panopticon. What, then, are we more afraid of: a virus or a bullet?

In a country where violent homicides and femicides have risen for over a decade, the Covid pandemic, as deadly as it has been, is experienced as a transitory disorder. As the scholar Fernando Escalante recently wrote, living in Mexico is to traverse through many social relations and practices mediated by violence, or by the ever-imminent possibility of violence. Episodes like the one unfolding in Solís happened before the pandemic and, indeed, the pattern is repeating in other towns. Mexico is none the wiser of the events in this valley because violence is hyperlocal, but most importantly, it is no longer a crisis.

Different types of crises imprint in our bodies.  The threat of nuclear war that might appear detached  to our everyday lives actually cling onto us like shadows that remind us of the inhumanity and fragility of the world.  At a more tangible level, political insecurity such as closures and detentions at the border; economic decline and unemployment; and insufficient health care amid the pandemic hit all of us closer to home. My fear as a woman moving within the panopticon of violence in areas of Mexico sharply contrasts with the attention I crave as a security researcher.  I, along with other early career colleagues in the field, force ourselves to constantly engage, so that we can produce op-eds, webinars, Twitter threads, and policy papers. The anxiety of keeping our work — and ourselves — relevant. These co-dependent layers of political, physical, and virtual insecurity cut through us and erode our sense of self-worth and belonging.


These are the imprints of my political and intimate insecurities during the Covid pandemic. It requires inner strength to push back against these insecurities,  and it’s okay that some days that strength is hard to muster. Digging deep into the struggle and seeking better ways to care for ourselves and each other during compounding crises could help redefine what really keeps us secure, and allow us to find each other in this collective darkness. In this journey, I realized how much my personal experience can be deeply political. I write to name, to share, to leave testimony of what happened to me, to us.

Update: As of early 2022, the armed men left the valley of Solís. And with the availability of Covid vaccines, residents in the valley are beginning to feel hopeful about reclaiming a sense of safety and peace. But still, they live with an imprint of violence — months of fear without any retribution or resolution, or any guarantee that they will never return again — which they will carry for years to come.


What does it mean to champion global security amid a backdrop of deep personal insecurity? Can we emerge out of the pandemic without replicating the errors and misdeeds of our former selves, societies, and systems?

The pandemic is a magnifier of existing workplace challenges that have always affected individuals of different identities and circumstances regardless of gender : parents, especially single-parents; minority groups historically unrepresented in high-earning fields; and disabled and non-binary groups who are rendered invisible, even stigmatized, in the workforce. Solutions should not be pandemic-specific. Rather, we should seek cultural and institutional change with long-lasting impact, irrespective of whether the world is in a state of equilibrium or crisis. Based on the stories above, we can start by having honest conversations about the following:

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Normalizing flexible work

While telework is now standard practice for many organizations and institutions in the field, workers fear that this option will not be available in post-pandemic conditions. Even when working from home, there are still expectations to perform at full capacity, even though employees wrestle with distractions and worries about their personal, family, and community wellbeing. Workplaces should have regular discussions to gauge employee concerns and needs around flexible work, may it be a policy-change or a matter of cultural or tonal shift among supervisors and co-workers that is more compassionate and supportive.

  • Wellness Support: Some organizations expanded wellness benefits during the pandemic to include offerings that improve mental health. Consider continuing this practice beyond the pandemic period to acknowledge that the mental strain of the past two years will reverberate for years to come.
  • Paid Parental Leave: In many places (especially in the United States), supplemental /emergency sick leave for Covid-19 has expired as of Fall 2021, forcing some employees to use regular sick leave they have reserved for parental leave. These difficult calculations and sacrifices reinforce the urgent need for paid family leave for all employees.
  • Pandemic Impacts on Classified Spaces: It may be beneficial for institutions operating in classified environments to examine the impact of telework (or lack thereof) on their workforce, what power dynamics may be at play (if at all), and what “flexible work” could look like beyond pandemic conditions.

Valuing early career members of the nuclear community

Newcomers, some who enter as interns, find it challenging to fit in a virtual working environment without a true sense of community, and a clear direction towards a stable job, let alone opportunities for promotions and feeling acknowledged as established experts in the  field. Gaining “experience” is often underwhelming under pandemic conditions as early career employees struggle to learn aspects of their work that depend on  bureaucracies, networks, and other work dynamics that do not easily translate in an online environment. These feelings of disillusionment  can also ripple up to mid-level employees, as they experience burnout without any clear road towards career advancement.

  • No More Unpaid Internships: All organizations and institutions in the nuclear policy field should budget a livable stipend or salary for their internship programs. Unpaid internship practices are ever more unethical today, as many people worry how to align their career goals with their financial needs as the pandemic continues on.
  • Workplace Transparency: Transparency can come in many forms, including salary and job description transparency at every level to eliminate internal inequity, while laying out clear guideposts for employees about what it would take to move onto the next level. Making this information available without red tape can also help build trusting work relationships.
  • Learning From the Next Generation: Mentorship is often conducted through a one-directional approach, where senior employees impart knowledge and give advice to less experienced individuals. As politics, culture, technologies, and distribution of information shift in order to cater to the tastes and interests of younger generations, it is time to pursue reciprocal relationships where both mentees and mentors feel valued and can learn from each other.

Expanding our understanding of “security”

Even as the immediate stressors of the pandemic have waned, the mental and physical trauma Covid-19 inflicted will continue to shape worldviews for years to come. While the field pushes out new analysis, continues programming, and contemplates near-future travel plans, it is no longer possible to decouple this work from the exhaustion and insecurities of the past two years.The impact of the pandemic is also asymmetric, easing in some countries and worsening in others.   Nuclear security work should be contextualized by the experiences of people in crisis, rather than operating under the pretenses of normalcy. Members of the field should continue to observe employee wellness beyond the most challenging period of the pandemic, using personal stories as a methodological tool to understand how policy practitioners around the world—their inspirations, frustrations, resignations —are changing the composition and substance of the field itself.

  • Supporting Personal Security: Check-in with employees on how they may feel unsafe during work-related travel or other engagements, especially those who are immunocompromised or have high-risk family members, as well as those who are worried about discrimination or danger because of their ethnicity, gender, religion, disability or other background.

Without reflection, discourse, and action,  the nuclear policy community risks carrying harmful, gendered thinking into the new normal, replanting seeds of insecurity that threaten the possibility of a truly equitable, inclusive, and just future in the nuclear field.