On the day of her interview with Spark, Natasha Bajema ’98 has quite a few things on her to-do list. She’s recovering from driving almost a thousand miles in her pickup truck over the past few days. She’s working as the director of the Converging Risks Lab at The Council on Strategic Risks. And she’s coaxing her two dogs, Charlie
and Luna, down five stories underground into a former nuclear missile silo as part of a travelogue show she’s producing
“Oh, and my friend and I were supposed to have a pajama party tonight at the bottom of the missile silo for YouTube,” she said. But her friend had to cancel their plans due to her boyfriend catching COVID, so Bajema is doing what she does best—going with the flow.
An experimental journey
Bajema, who has an MA from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and a PhD from Tufts University, is an expert on nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). She spent more than a decade in Washington, D.C., with the National Defense University and as a senior adviser to an assistant secretary of defense at the Pentagon.
But in 2019, she quit. Now she’s on a yearlong mission with her camper and dogs to visit dozens of nuclear-weapons related sites. She’s creating short, entertaining videos as she travels, in the hope of using YouTube to educate the general public about nuclear weapons.
“I’m doing this because we’re in trouble. The world still has 13,500 nuclear weapons, and each one can annihilate an entire city. China, Russia, the U.S., and others are modernizing their programs. I ask myself, ‘Is this the future that we want for our country? Do we want a future that’s like the Cold War?’”
Bajema is the first to admit that her trip is experimental, and she’s used her entire life savings to fund the project. “I think we need to speak more with actions and less with words. This is me speaking with my actions,” she said.
Becoming a nuclear weapons expert wasan unexpected career path for Bajema, who loved art in high school and had a knack for learning languages.
“My first memory of Calvin was a German class with Jim Lamse,” she said. “He had the energy of an 18-year-old and was eccentric in ways that are hard to describe.”
Lamse, who passed away in 2014, helped Bajema get to Germany a few times to work and study.
“The first time I went, Professor Lamse arranged an au pair job for me. You pick up language very quickly when you’re in charge of small children,” she said.
The road to WMDs
Bajema discovered an interest in WMDs while getting her master’s degree. “Just like Jim Lamse had done for me at Calvin, I had a professor in grad school who really believed in me. He recognized something in me and told me I should pursue WMDs for my career.”
She was in the middle of her PhD program when the job at the National Defense University opened up. She knew completing her academic program and starting a new job wouldn’t be easy, but she took on the challenge.
“You can’t count on anything in life, and you have to seize what comes to you at the moment,” she said. “We’re not meant to be comfortable. I think that’s what we’re taught in the New Testament with Jesus and his disciples. They weren’t comfortable. When we’re living an uncomfortable life is when we are truly living.”