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An Agent of Change
In high school, Brenda saw the social and biological sciences as a “path toward helping change the world for the better.” Once she reached college, however, she had a change of heart.
“After sampling many disciplines’ schools of thought,” Brenda says, “I was struck by the power of simple ideas in physics.” She saw that many other disciplines move forward very slowly, and that some fields of study can take decades validate new ideas.
“What attracted me to physics was that simple ideas, if verified, can very quickly alter the course of the field. Take Einstein’s theory of relativity or Planck’s idea of the quantum or Feynman diagrams as cases in point. As such, a single person’s efforts can amount to something profound in physics. That notion is what initially drew me and continues to draw me to physics today.”
The Best of Both Worlds
Brenda says she always dreamt of becoming a professor, but in graduate school she saw the realities of what that career can mean. She wanted a balanced life, between research and mentoring young scientists, and between her professional and private life. “After spending a few summers at the national labs, I realized that lab scientists get the best of both worlds in this regard - while they often mentor other scientists, they still have the opportunity to conduct their own research from day to day.” Brenda saw that many of the scientists she met working in national labs appreciated finding a reasonably balanced work and professional life.
“The combined ability to pursue my own research - as well as some of my own private ambitions - drew me to the [national] labs.”
Today, Brenda is a Lawrence Fellow at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), one of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) premier labs located near San Diego, California. While still a post-doc, she is able to pursue her own research interests and apply for her own grants. Brenda likes to combine her own physics background with the research priorities at LLNL, which include energy and biosecurity research.
Brenda is currently developing new techniques that would allow researchers to study the chemistry of heavy elements with higher accuracy than has previously been possible. “These methods are of fundamental interest to me from a basic science perspective, but also compliment the DOE’s desire to develop highly accurate… methods for studying a wide range of materials.”
A Day in the Life
As a post-doc in a national lab setting, Brenda spends the majority of her time working on her research projects. “In my case,” Brenda says, “this amounts to deriving, programming, and analyzing computational data.” The rest of her work day is spent writing proposals, attending seminars, or meeting with colleagues to develop collaborations or discuss mutual projects.
Because DOE projects often require scientists with a wide range of expertise, Brenda often finds herself collaborating with researchers from other fields. “Compared to the way I conducted research during my tenure as a student, I find collaborating in this regard exhilarating. Almost every day I learn something new about a completely unexpected scientific topic!”
In addition to her research at LLNL, Brenda spends some of her free time tutoring, mentoring, and teaching students that she hopes will one day be scientists and engineers. Brenda grew up in a town with no professional scientists. “It was only through my direct interactions with scientists teaching at my high school that I learned that science could even be a career,” she says. She believes it is important for scientists to be visible to young people.
“I try to be that scientist in the classroom, inspiring young students to alternative career paths whenever I can, whether that means teaching them the basics or adding a little bit extra to their science fair projects.”
Intern at a National Laboratory
The national labs are always looking for bright, talented researchers. Their internship programs can act as a springboard toward being a future staff member. Brenda advises students to apply for an internship, and work hard while at the lab. Impressing your mentor could earn you an invitation back or even a job offer.
“The national labs are great places to do science with a long list of truly tough problems to solve. As long as you are flexible with regard to the research topics you are willing to work on, the labs can be a fantastic place to work!”
Science is a Team Sport
Brenda encourages students to find role models who can help them learn to engage with other scientists. “Solving problems on your own… does not teach you the tiniest amount about how to effectively collaborate with colleagues,” Brenda says. Being a research scientist requires collaboration on projects at every level.
“As strong as you may be as an individual scientist, you are always improved by maintaining a close set of scientist friends that can challenge your ideas and help mentor you through your career.”