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10 Questions for a Bioenergy Expert: Melinda Hamilton

February 15, 2011 - 4:43pm


Melinda Hamilton | Photo courtesy of the Idaho National Laboratory

Melinda Hamilton | Photo courtesy of the Idaho National Laboratory

Meet Melinda Hamilton – she’s a bioenergy expert and the Director of Education Programs at Idaho National Laboratory. She recently took some time to share what she’s doing to help ramp-up U.S. competitiveness in science and technology, why Jane Goodall led her to a career in science and what can happen in a lab if you don’t start with a good plan.

Q: What sparked your interest to pursue a career in science?

Melinda Hamilton: The answer is kind of corny, but the truth is when I was young I used to watch National Geographic and the Jane Goodall series. That’s really what did it.

Q: What attracted to you bioenergy?

MH: It was sort of a combination of my education and interests – I had really, really gotten interested in plants and migrated more to plants and microbiology as I was pursuing my degrees. Then the bioenergy interest came when I got to INL with ability to use that background and education in something so important and that fit our mission. I started in bioenergy because it was such a fascinating use of plants.

Q: What projects are you working on right now?

MH: Right now my projects are focused around microbial conversion of different biomass sources. For instance, using animal waste or farm waste and converting it into biofuels and energy through microbial processes. The hope is to make cost effective, efficient, low carbon mechanisms for off-setting our petroleum energy use.

Q: You are also Director of Education Programs at INL. Why is this type of initiative important?

MH: This is probably one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my career. Look around the United States and at our competitiveness, especially in technology and science, and the things that have to be accomplished to be both energy and environmentally secure. We are falling behind in having that pipeline of educated scientists and engineers for the next generation. I don’t think there’s anything more vital to our prosperity, to our security than education. So what’s really fun in this job is that I get to help prepare and come up with that next generation of the workforce.

Q: What types of programs are you working on to encourage students in the STEM fields?

MH: One of them is i-STEM. It’s a program across Idaho to develop our teachers in the K-12 grades since they are the ones who truly spark students’ interest and prepare them. If we don’t get students interested early, you know, if they don’t have Jane Goodall like I did, then they don’t see the relevance and the hands-on fun and they are not going to pursue those careers. i-STEM is a large initiative in the state to get the teachers prepared to go in the classroom and do that.

We’re also involved with community colleges and universities to address some of the needs of students coming out of high school and going into college. We’re working with industry to ensure that the curriculum matches the needs of the changing workforce. Tomorrow’s jobs haven’t even been thought of yet so we have to be thinking ahead and working with industry to do that.

Q: Do you have advice for students who might be interested in becoming scientists?

MH: First and foremost – get all the math you can and get good at it. So many students today don’t see the relevance of the math they are taking in high school, but it’s critical in every field.

I would also encourage them to not get pigeon-holed. Don’t go down the silo of “all I’m going to study is biology” or “I’m only going to study chemistry.” Everything we do now is interdisciplinary. The problems that scientists today are tackling are huge and they require that you be able to talk and work with scientists in other fields.

And, hopefully, they’ll also get some hands-on experience. Do some internships -- find out what you like. The worst thing is to get four years into your degree and realize “I didn’t know this is what I’d be doing, I don’t really want to do this for the rest of my life.” That’s what internships and apprenticeships are about -- find out what it’s like to be in a lab every day or what it means to tinker with instruments all day and if that’s what you like.

Q: What projects are you watching (beside our own)?

MH: I watch all of the renewable energy projects. Our energy challenges are going to take a portfolio of technologies to solve. There’s no one answer. There’s no one silver bullet that’s going to fix it. And a lot of those different technologies are going to have to work together. For instance, the heat from a nuclear reactor providing energy for a bioreactor. There’s going to be a lot of projects where the different clean energy technologies have to tie together so I try to keep an eye on all of those.

Q: What is your favorite tool in the lab?

MH: For me, it’s still the microscope. I’m a microbiologist at heart and there are so many cool microscopes now. The microscope still does it for me.

Q: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

MH: I love to scrapbook. That’s my favorite thing to do when I’m not working.

Q: Final question, what can you never start a day at the lab without?

MH: Coffee and a plan. You need a plan of action. The day never goes according to plan in a lab. That’s research -- things never go the way you planned. But you better have one going in or you can get off track easily. There are so many fun things to look at and explore. You need a plan to keep you on task.

This is the latest post in our 10 Questions series, introducing you to our scientists and the incredible work they do. You can view our first 10 Questions with Brookhaven physicist Antonio Checco.