"Even if she is a girl..." Words like that might deter a female from loving math and science, especially when the disclaimer is announced to a large audience by a math teacher presenting a major award.
Fortunately, Los Alamos chemist Becky Chamberlin didn’t let gender bias stop her from studying science, achieving an Ivy League doctorate in chemistry. In school, Chamberlin was attracted to chemistry because it was quantitative and logical—a chance to combine abstract reasoning with hands-on observations. For a young woman interested in science and math, she says it’s easy to get the impression that “left brain” logical and analytical skills are all that matters.
She advises future scientists to develop other strengths, too—to remember that to get projects funded and publicized, one must be able to write and speak well. And to succeed in project work, one must also be able to organize, mentor, and lead a team.
A nuclear forensics chemist and nonproliferation expert, Chamberlin is helping our technical experts bring forward a more comprehensive effort on the science of detecting nuclear weapons development.
Chamberlin is dedicated to helping the next generation achieve their goals. Chair of the Los Alamos Employees’ Scholarship Fund, she recently helped launch a new fund targeted at non-traditional students who want to pursue a two-year degree.
1) What inspired you to work in STEM?
My dad worked as an engineer with NASA, and later as a teacher, and he raised us to be very inquisitive. When we played 20 Questions, he would ask precise technical questions like “Is it an arthropod?” or “Is it nocturnal?” and we were constantly running to the bookshelf for answers to questions that came up during dinnertime.
Up until my senior year of high school, I was planning to be a journalist. Then I had the “aha!” moment, during my advanced biology class, that the way things are put together has everything to do with how they work, and I was hooked. I was eventually drawn to chemistry as a major and a career because it was quantitative and logical – you could reason about it abstractly – but at the same time it was tangible – you could see it and put your hands on it.
2) What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?
I’m excited by the way we bring different people with different skills together to solve problems at Los Alamos. It’s a very fluid process and it provides so much opportunity for ongoing learning and growth. One of my current assignments involves working with physicists, chemists and engineers to design experiments that will help us more accurately detect nuclear weapons development by a proliferator. On another project, I’m working with chemists and chemical engineers to create new ways to process and analyze very small quantities of plutonium. Going to work is always fresh and exciting when you can interact with so many different people and ideas.
3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
Lately, as I’ve been watching science documentaries on TV, I’ve caught myself thinking “Wow, I had no idea there were so many women in this field!” Women like Alice Roberts, Michelle Thaller, and Amy Mainzer are becoming part of the face of science, communicating the big ideas of paleontology and astrophysics to the public. And Neil deGrasse Tyson is practically a rock star. The numbers of women and minorities are still small on the science shows, but it feels like a major shift. Let’s have more of this, please!
I also love the fact that young girls who are drawn to “girly” colors and themes – pink and purple and horseback riding and cupcake baking – now have access to appealing construction toys that build their spatial reasoning and 3D manipulation skills. Being “girly” and becoming an engineer aren’t mutually exclusive.
At the same time, we need to keep working on the messages we are giving to young girls. When I say I’m a chemist, it’s so common for adult women to reply “Ohhhh…chemistry was my worst subject” or “Oh! You must be really smart!” Is this the kind of message their daughters are hearing, too? How about instead of “Science and math are so hard,” moms can tell daughters, “I wish someone had believed in my ability to learn chemistry, the way that I believe in yours.” Or: “Yes, some math concepts are difficult at first. You’re training your brain to be stronger, just like you trained your body to run that 5K race.”
4) Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
For a young woman interested in science and math, it’s easy to get the impression that the “left brain” logical and analytical skills are all that matters. My advice would be to recognize and develop your other strengths, too. I learned to write crisp, compelling non-fiction in my high school journalism classes, and that has helped me get research proposals funded. Being a great coach or leader is another skill set that many young women have. Scientists rarely work in isolation, so being able to bring out the best in people as you work together toward a goal can make the difference between a good project and a great one.
5) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
Family time is my main hobby right now, as my husband and I are raising two young boys. I also enjoy hiking, cooking, and landscaping.