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Women @ Energy: Hai Ah Nam

April 1, 2013 - 11:04am

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Hai Ah Nam being interviewed on how the Titan supercomputer will benefit research in low-energy nuclear physics.  The full video can be seen at https://www.olcf.ornl.gov/titan/.

Hai Ah Nam being interviewed on how the Titan supercomputer will benefit research in low-energy nuclear physics. The full video can be seen at https://www.olcf.ornl.gov/titan/.

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Dr. Hai Ah Nam is a computational nuclear physicist working at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) since 2008.  Hai Ah’s research focuses on using cutting-edge high performance computing systems like Titan, the world’s fastest supercomputer, to solve large-scale problems in theoretical low-energy nuclear physics.  Currently, she is a co-PI on the 6th largest Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment (INCITE) allocation award for computing time on the Nuclear Structure and Reactions project.  Hai Ah is also a co-PI and serves on the NUclear Computational Low-Energy Initiative (NUCLEI) Advisory Council, a Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing (SciDAC) application partnership focused on integrating computer science, applied mathematics and physics to use high-performance computing to explore the nuclear landscape.  She received her Ph.D. in Computational Science jointly from San Diego State University and Claremont Graduate University in 2010.  She received her M.S. in Physics from Carnegie Mellon University in 1999 and B.A. in Physics from Scripps College in 1997.

1) What inspired you to work in STEM?

As a child of hard-working Korean immigrant parents, surprisingly I was not set on a pre-med path like my older siblings, and was actually left to figure out on my own where I should create my fortunes.  Sounds empowering, but it left me utterly confused because I did not show an exceptional aptitude for any particular subject, I was simply required to do well in everything. I received little guidance on real-life career opportunities because the adults around me also had little experience and no one in my family ever fathomed obtaining a Ph.D. The world may have been my oyster, but I had no idea what a pearl looked like to search for it. So, going off to college, I chose my major based on the teacher I had liked best, Mr. Lessard. I declared myself a French major in the expectation that I would study international business and somehow become the next Connie Chung, because my father mentioned it once. 

It all changed during my first year of college, when I took my first physics and astronomy courses. I was enthralled   by astronomy to know that we knew so little about the world around us, and also challenged to the point of tears in physics because understanding did not come easily as it had come in other subjects – I got my first “B”! Despite the blow to my ego, I caught the bug to want to know more than what was presented in textbooks. I wanted to be part of the quest to unravel the mysteries of the universe, which meant following the arduous path of physics.  It was… and still is such a challenge working in STEM, but, it’s never boring. I get to question our basic understanding of the world where the answers are not in the back of the book.  It’s exciting.

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

Research to know more is exciting, but the work is even more fulfilling when you know your research contributes to the benefit of the nation and humanity.  The Department of Energy invests in scientists and science to ensure America’s security and prosperity, both now and into the future.  As I get older and see my daughter take ownership of the world around her, I am proud to know that I am making contributions to create a better world for her generation and those to come.

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

Throughout my STEM studies and career, I’ve managed to find excellent mentors to provide guidance and create opportunities.  However, it was entirely serendipitous that I ever fell into a STEM path in the first place.  I lacked exposure to the possibilities and did not even know to dream STEM dreams.  I think this is true for many other females and underrepresented groups, especially when coming from financially disadvantaged backgrounds or strong cultural biases.  As scientists, especially at national labs where we see the broad reaching and interdisciplinary opportunities of a STEM career, it is vital that we make above and beyond efforts to let the next generation know of the possibilities and to spark their imagination.  This means interacting with students as early as possible and as often as possible.      

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

Even after I discovered my love of physics and research, life happened and I made choices that set me far off the path that I tread today. Thankfully, I was able to listen to my inner voice, act on my ambitions to self-correct, and returned to graduate school after a 5 year “hiatus.” It wasn’t easy, but I found that most people are helpful and want you to succeed; you just have to let them know what you want.  Learn to ask.   

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

Free time is certainly hard to come by juggling a research passion and a 10-year old who you want to ensure has every opportunity to flourish. But, I try hard to fit in time for community outreach to empower and grow the next generation of scientists through mentorship and program development and organization.  When I’m not doing all of that, I love to run marathons, although not when I’ve hit the wall at mile 24 and am questioning my sanity.        

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