When did you first know that you wanted to be a scientist or engineer? I was in 8th grade Advanced Science, and I distinctly remember my teacher, Mr. Hedberg, trying to explain the difference between a covalent bond and an ionic bond. I can still see his chalkboard drawings in my mind! It was like love at first sight between me and chemistry, but the only thing I really knew then was that I wanted to know more.
What is your happiest moment in science or engineering so far? There are so many great moments, but for me, the thing that brings me the most joy is when students graduate from my group, and then they come back to tell me all about their successes in the “outside” world. It’s so fulfilling to see them achieving great things, and taking joy in them, and coming back “home” to share with me. I’m just so proud of them and excited to learn about how they are changing the world.
Of course, there is a lot of satisfaction from the science as well. It’s thrilling when a key experiment works, or you learn something new, or are able to prove your hypothesis.
Would you ever leave science or engineering? Why? I don’t think so, unless I needed to, to take care of my family, but it’s hard to imagine leaving science altogether. Sometimes I wish I had studied a different field (I often wish I were more of a biophysicist), but I’m always glad to be a scientist and engineer. The beauty about being a scientist and engineer is that you have so much flexibility. If you want to learn a new field, you can. If you want to research a new topic, you can. If you want to apply science to a new discipline (like cooking!) you can. There are endless ways to be a scientist. It’s such a privilege to have this intellectual richness every day. I think one can leave the profession, but at heart they’ll always be a scientist and engineer.
What was the most challenging experience you ever had as a scientist or engineer? The most challenging thing I think I have experienced is dealing with people who want to exclude others who are interested in science and engineering because they don’t look or act like a stereotypical scientist or engineer. There are many different ways to be a successful scientist and engineering, and plenty of room for everyone to make contributions at all levels. I believe it is part of my job as a scientist and engineer to foster that curiosity in others and to be a steward to the public for science and engineering.
Knowing what you do now know, would you be a scientist or engineer again? Why? I really like how I am able to view and understand the world around me, and that is the product of years and years of training and practice. The world is a fascinating place, and if I weren’t a scientist and engineer, I wouldn’t be able to see it and understand it in the way that I do. I’ve got the greatest job in the world – I get to spend my days solving puzzles that I find interesting, and to train others to ask interesting questions and figure out how to answer them. Plus, we’ve got all the cool gadgets (scientific instruments)!
Where do you find science or engineering in your daily routine? It’s everywhere! I think the two areas I think about science a lot in my daily routine are in cooking, and in the beauty products I use. Many of us are familiar with the importance of chemical reactions and processes used in food preparation – the whole field of molecular gastronomy comes from looking at food as scientific experiment. Beauty products are also really interesting. I teach a course on drug delivery, and I like to show advertisements for certain beauty products, and we discuss the validity of the claims based on our knowledge of the barrier properties of skin or other scientific knowledge. I remember once a close friend of mine (not a trained scientist) asked me about a specific hair product that claims to repair damage from coloring and bleaching. I looked it up, and was surprised to learn that the inventor was a prominent scientist in my field. I read the patent, and told my friend that the product was based on known chemical reactions, and I now use it myself!
When have you felt like you belonged? Being part of a lab can be like being part of a family. In fact, in certain academic disciplines, chemistry in particular, you can trace your chemistry ancestry or lineage. Your research advisors are referred to as your academic parents. I’ve developed close friendships with former labmates and advisors that span decades.
When did you feel like you didn’t belong? Even though I trained as a chemist, I ended up as faculty in a school of engineering. In general, women are underrepresented in STEM fields, and particularly so in engineering. It is a bit isolating to go into a meeting and be the only woman there, or to have someone tell you that you are on a committee to ensure it has a diverse composition.
What do I like to do outside of science? I like cooking, hiking, riding my bike to the beach, watching my stepsons play soccer, and playing with my dog and cats. I also like watching movies and TV, listening to podcasts and audiobooks, and reading. I usually favor true and fictional crime stories!