Kathy McCormick

US Department of Homeland Security

About Kathy


Interesting Highlights

  • Avid traveler
  • Rides her bike around                 Washington, DC
  • Plays “old-school” Nintendo

Advice for Students

  • Get hands-on experience early
  • Learn to communicate your work at different levels
  • Practice public speaking

Why Physics?

Fundamental Science
Until her senior year of high school, Kathy had planned to major in chemistry. “I always loved science,” says Kathy. That year, she took a physics course and it changed her mind. Kathy decided that she would major in physics in college. Kathy was drawn to physics because she felt that it gave her a basis to understand many subjects.

“Physics seemed to be the most fundamental of the sciences that I had studied, [physics gives] you insights into many different fields.”

Using Physics

Radiation Detection at National Labs
During college at Eastern Kentucky University, Kathy originally aimed for a career at NASA. As she progressed through school, Kathy became more focused on radiation detection and found herself interested in a career in the national labs. Kathy went on to work at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility to complete her thesis research, and received a PhD from Old Dominion University.

Kathy decided to move toward applied physics, and accepted a position at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). “[I was] doing research in physics applications for homeland security issues,” says Kathy. She continued working on radiation detection systems for various security applications, including the development of systems to scan cargo as it enters the United States as part of the Radiation Portal Monitor Program.

The Radiation Portal Monitor Program was administered by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). “After working on the program for a few years, I decided to apply for a federal position at CBP, where I could work on the radiation detection program at the headquarters level.”

US Customs and Border Protection
“I serve as one of the radiation detection subject matter experts,” Kathy says. Her job changes a lot from day to day, but Kathy says she often tests the radiation detection sensitivity and functionality of new equipment, defines equipment requirements, performs data analysis on data from deployed systems, and writes papers on results. She also represents CBP in meetings with other government agencies and at the White House.

Kathy says she uses a lot of the skills she learned through her physics background. “I get the opportunity to collect data at our field sites in (sometimes) remote locations on the southern and northern borders.”

“During my thesis research, I had the opportunity to work on many different types of radiation detection equipment and perform analysis of data taken by detection hardware,” says Kathy. “I use those skills a lot today.”

Advice for Students

Get Hands-on Experience
Kathy says hands-on experience is very important throughout your career. “Try to get as much hands-on experience as possible during your student years,” says Kathy. “I had an opportunity to build radiation detection by hand when I was a grad student.” Now, she uses that experience to judge the quality of commercially produced radiation detection equipment.

Practice Writing at All Levels
While it is important to be able to communicate your research to scientists in your field, learning how to effectively write and present your work is imperative. Kathy works with a lot of non-technical people, and she still needs to able to communicate with them, “without diluting conclusions.” Kathy says practice makes perfect, so start early! “When I was a grad student I volunteered to give as many presentations as I could, so that I had plenty of experience with public speaking at all different levels.”