NSF Graduate Research Fellow, Chemistry & Climate Science
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I was always a curious kid and very lucky to have had super supportive parents and teachers who nurtured my curiosity and led me to science for answers from a very early age. Also though, I think a little part of me decided to pursue STEM in college because of everyone and anyone who said that I couldn’t. I wanted to prove them wrong and prove to myself that I could do it.
After my undergrad in chemistry, I was hooked. I decided to go to graduate school because I wanted to learn more about how to “do” research, and make new discoveries. I wanted to learn how to think like a scientist, and work on questions that could someday impact how we live. I wanted to make a difference in the world somehow, and science is what inspires me to try and do that each day.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The *coolest* project I’ve worked on is definitely the one I’m working on right now for my dissertation work, the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE-Arctic) project at ORNL! 😊 The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet and holds huge stores of carbon below ground, frozen in the permafrost. NGEE’s goal is to improve climate model predictions of how the Arctic is going to respond to warming temperatures in the future.
My research focuses on determining how the molecular composition of these permafrost soils may be driving the release of greenhouse gases from these systems, and if that chemical signature can be used as a predictor to help identify “hotspots” of vulnerability across the landscape. But the cool science isn’t my only favorite thing about this project…
Although the Arctic is generally known for its freezing temperatures, biting winds, and swarms of mosquitoes in the summer, getting out of the lab and visiting our field sites in Alaska to collect samples has been an invaluable opportunity to learn about the complexity of natural systems and just how much climate change is impacting Americans right now.
As a Department of Energy-led initiative, NGEE has given me the opportunity to work with chemists, biologists, computer scientists, and engineers, from universities and national laboratories from all around the country and meet people from all around the world. Being a part of a such a large interdisciplinary team has shown me a new perspective on how scientists from many different fields can, and must work together to tackle the world’s greatest problems and questions, including climate change.
Role models and heroes:
My family, friends, teachers, and faculty mentors in undergrad and graduate school have always been my greatest support system and source of inspiration. And in addition to every woman that came before me to blaze the trail for more us to pursue STEM, my role models also include all of my STEMinist colleagues in the Bredesen Center and at the University of Tennessee. They all come from such unique backgrounds and are tackling fascinating research questions. Pursuing a PhD is tough, but some of my colleagues are pursuing their PhD while also becoming a mom. I’d love to see a guy try and finish his PhD over a summer in South, while pregnant with twins… 😉
Why do you loving working in STEM?
Working in a STEM field has taught me to question everything, and think for myself. It’s too easy to get caught up with reading the latest viral article on the internet and take it as fact. Part of becoming a scientist is learning how to “zoom out”, think about everything as objectively as possible by looking at it from multiple angles, make conclusions based on facts and the best data available, and then keep asking more questions. For me, science turns “I don’t know” into “I don’t know yet…” and that’s what inspires me every day.
Advice for future STEMinists?
Some of the best advice I received early on was that each STEM field has its own unique culture and being aware of that culture when choosing a field to work in, or when trying to communicate between fields, can be extremely helpful. Until more recently, these science cultures have mostly been shaped by white men.
Being in a science field may seem unfamiliar or even uncomfortable at times. There will be days where you question whether you want to stay in your STEM field. With every woman that perseveres through the tough days, and succeeds in her field, we change that culture just that little bit more. Don’t change yourself to fit into the culture you see there. Stand out. Be different. Change the culture to include YOU. 🙂
Favorite website or app:
I wouldn’t be a good science communicator without shamelessly plugging my website and blog Think Like A Postdoc, which aims to help high school, undergraduate, and graduate students navigate working in a STEM field and to help bridge the gap between scientists in the lab and the broader public: http://malloryladd.com