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Women @ Energy: Gert Patello

July 18, 2014 - 4:34pm

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Dr. Patello is a senior project manager at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Dr. Patello is a senior project manager at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

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Dr. Patello is a senior project manager at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.  She oversees several Isotope Program Projects and serves as the main programmatic interface for PNNL with the DOE Office of Science Nuclear Physics Isotope Program.  Her research interests focus on α-emitting isotope production for research and medical applications and management of medium- to high-risk radiochemical science projects.  She earned a bachelor’s degree in ceramics engineering and a doctorate in ceramics from Alfred University in New York.

1) What inspired you to work in STEM?

I always enjoyed math and science more than humanities, such as English and social studies, so it was a natural fit for my aptitude and capabilities.  I had an inspiring chemistry teacher for high school chemistry, and then was selected for the advanced placement chemistry course the first year it was offered.  It was exciting, because the teacher got the students involved in setting up new equipment that had been funded under a grant, and also involved us in helping flesh out the new curriculum.  He also provided guidance and recommended that I attend Alfred University, a small school that I’d never heard of, and it’s where I ended up getting both my undergraduate degree as well as my Ph.D.

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

For me, it’s the ability to work in national mission space and knowing that I can have a large impact. Right now we are working heavily in medical isotopes for DOE, and we can see how the successes we achieve will directly impact how isotopes are used in medical and industrial settings and have an impact on people’s lives. For example, the isotopes we’re developing can be used in cancer therapies, resulting in a huge benefit to society as a whole.

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

When I look at my own journey, I would say that if you don’t get them in elementary or middle school, or at least high school, you’re going to lose them. Women and girls just don’t suddenly get interested in science in college. They need to be put on the path young, ideally at the elementary level.  We need to recognize interest and aptitude and encourage them and give them opportunities and provide supportive environments.  I had wonderfully encouraging parents. My father was a contractor and my mother was an accountant, both of which utilized elements of STEM education. Then I was inspired watching my mom going back to school and earning her degree while working and raising a family.  There was also no question in our house about whether we were going to college, it was just assumed.  I also had a supportive peer network – my female friends and I all worked at being at the top of the class.  So in the school environment, I never felt intimidated in science and math classrooms. We need to provide that environment and encouragement for girls.

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

Focus on degrees with a solid scientific base, and it’s very important if you want to advance, to have longer-term goals to earn a Ph.D.  Get involved in internships – working for companies can be very influential in directing your path.  For example, one of my internships influenced me in what you might call a “negative” way – the work I was doing demonstrated what opportunities were available at different degree levels, and the options for someone with a bachelor’s degree wasn’t the work I wanted to be doing. So, it helped with the decision to pursue my doctorate. Internships enable students to figure out what path they want to be on, to know “this is what I love vs. this isn’t what I want to do.”

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

I’ve been singing in my church choir for 20 years.  It was one of my first activities when I moved to Richland. I love singing and it was a good way to meet new people and make friends.  I also volunteer for the American Cancer Society and for the annual fundraiser for the school my children attended – even though they grew up and are no longer enrolled!

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