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Women @ Energy: Cherrill Spencer

March 11, 2013 - 4:38pm


Cherrill Spencer is a Magnet Engineer at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

Cherrill Spencer is a Magnet Engineer at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.


Cherrill Spencer is a Magnet Engineer at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. During her nearly 25 years as SLAC's main magnet engineer she has designed and made magnets for the Stanford Linear Collider, the Next Linear Collider Test Accelerator, PEPII, the Accelerator Test Facility#2 at the Japanese National Lab (KEK), the FACET test beamline and, currently for the LCLS-II. During this time she spent over 10 years designing and costing thousands of magnets for the proposed Next Linear Collider and the proposed International Linear Collider. Cherrill has also worked for the past 13 years to improve the reliability of accelerator magnets and is spreading the wisdom she has gained from working as a magnet engineer for nearly 29 years to magnet engineers at research labs all over the world.

Prior to 1988 Cherrill worked in industry for 9 years, designing, fabricating, and field testing microcomputer-controlled instruments and designing magnets for MRI machines. After gaining her doctorate in 1972 she did experimental elementary particle physics research as a postdoctoral research associate for 7 years. First at the Italian National Lab in Frascati, Italy and then at SLAC, first as a postdoc for the University of Wisconsin and then Florida State University. Cherrill earned her B.Sc in Physics from the Royal Holloway College, London University, her D.Phil in Elementary Particle Physics from Linacre College, Oxford University. 

1) What inspired you to work in STEM?

I was inspired to major in physics as an undergraduate in England by my wish not to become a schoolteacher like the women in my all-girls boarding school! I choose physics because it deals with the basic questions about the universe and appealed to my curiosity about what we are ultimately made from. I went into elementary particle physics at the PhD stage of my career so I could design and carry out experiments to discover if there was anything inside a proton or what the proprieties of a muon are, for example.

2)  What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?

I work at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory as a magnet engineer. I first came to SLAC in 1974 as a postdoctoral research associate for the University of Wisconsin and did particle physics experiments for 4.5 years. I worked in industry as a physicist for 9 years and then I came back to SLAC as a magnet engineer in 1988 having learnt something about designing magnets at an MRI company.  I like being in a job where I have to keep learning new facts and skills in order to do my work, I am excited by being able to create something new that hasn't existed before.

3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?

There are many nonprofit groups dedicated to encouraging girls to study a STEM subject as an undergraduate, I was on the  Board of Directors of one of the oldest  such organizations for 30 years, the Expanding Your Horizons Network (EYH/N). The EYH/N (formerly called the Math/Science Network) coordinates the approximately 85 annual EYH conferences held in 85 different towns all over the USA for 6th through 12th grade girls. At these conferences the girls meet local women scientists and engineers who lead them in hands-on workshops doing scientific or engineering or math-based activities that are connected to the workshop leaders’ careers. 

These conferences are organized by volunteers and the workshop leaders are volunteers, we were always scrambling to persuade women in STEM careers to be a workshop leader (once they had done it once they were hooked and came back year after year to run their hands-on workshops), Their main excuse was they were too busy at work to take time to design a workshop and procure the necessary equipment. If the Department of Energy would allow the technical staff at its laboratories some number of hours a year, say 8 hours a year, during their workday, to work on becoming an outreach expert, to develop a hands-on activity for an EYH conference, or to go into a local school to tell them what experiments they've been doing or building apparatus for, I think we would see many more employees becoming  volunteers.  There would need to be a charge number for such outreach activities.  The EYH conferences have   been shown to influence the career paths of girls in middle and high schools;  being a workshop leader at an EYH  is a worthwhile activity and the  DOE could help more of its women scientists and engineers become EYH volunteers. Visit the EYH Network's website for more information on this effective organization: .

4) Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?

If you are still in high school then take as many math classes as you can, because you will need a good basis in mathematics in order to become a scientist or engineer or technician. It is more important to take the math classes than extra science classes if you find your schedule is too full. Take a public tour of the national lab closest to where you live to see what amazing things they are doing there. Watch the science programs on public TV such as NOVA, and find out what kind of science you find most interesting. You will be happier if you can identify which field of science you find most appealing i.e. physics or chemistry or biology or engineering , and study that as an undergraduate, rather than picking a field because your parents want you to do it, or you think you'll make more money in it.

5)  When you have free time, what are your hobbies?

I am a dedicated "umbraphile" which means I like to stand in the shadow of the moon, as it covers up the sun in a total solar eclipse.  I have experienced 11 total solar eclipses during the past 30 years, and have clearly seen every eclipsed sun, the last one I enjoyed from a hot air balloon floating 1000 feet above Cairns in Australia, last November.  Going to eclipses enables me to travel to distant places which is another thing I love to do - and to take photographs of everything while I'm there. While at home I like to garden, go to classical music concerts, attend local plays and visit museums.