Why be a scientist?

When I was 16, I got my first job interning at the Naval Research Lab. There is a summer program that helps bring high school students into labs there. I interviewed for a couple of positions, but I wasn’t qualified. I could only code in BASIC, and they wanted people who could code in FORTRAN. It was a while ago.

I was hired with a team of other high school students to do two things– take aluminum panels apart that looked a lot like airplane wings and to polish aluminum pieces until they were perfect mirrors so the scientists could look at the structure of the metal in a microscope.

Pull the aluminum apart was loud, smelly, and hot. We did it in a loading area with a bandsaw and a machine that grabbed and ripped things apart while recording the forces needed to do so (a tensile tester or instron machine.) Polishing the metals was cool in temperature but mind numbing. The mind numbing aspect was a killer, because if one didn’t pay attention, one messed up. We knew it was going to be a long summer when we found a box of trashy novels with a note that said, “Read these out loud. It’s all that kept us going. –Last years’ interns.”

Within one day, I was bored. I went to the boss and asked if there was anything else I might do. He didn’t say anything, but the next morning, I met Dr. Patricia Trzaskoma. She was an electrochemist, and she let me work side by side with her studying corrosion. I still pulled things apart and polished them, but in between, I learned about electrochemistry, IV curves, and how to set up and run experiments. We used a plotter to record results, and one of my jobs was to sit there and mark the data at 3 minute intervals. But, I also got to plot up the data and see how different dopants affected the electrochemical potential. I learned how that related to corrosion and Pat took me to the scanning electron microscope so I could see the structure of the metal before it corroded and after. I loved being able to see the science from the start to the finish.

Even though I was a seriously annoying high school student, Pat treated me like a colleague. She taught me the basics of electrochemistry, but she also taught be that I belonged in science by how she included me in everything she was doing. When she moved positions, I moved with her, and thanks to her, I got to learn a whole host of cool things.

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