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Women @ Energy: Marianne Sowa

April 1, 2013 - 4:10pm


Dr. Marianne Sowa has been very active in mentoring students through different programs at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Dr. Marianne Sowa has been very active in mentoring students through different programs at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

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Dr. Marianne Sowa, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is an example of a multi-disciplinary scientist. She earned her B.S. in biology from Spring Hill College, Mobile and her Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. She works at the interface between physics and biology and has developed new methods for understanding radiation responses in human cells and three-dimensional tissue models. Marianne and her colleagues created a novel single-cell irradiation device to study low-dose, radiation-induced bystander effects, a biological response in the absence of direct irradiation. The electron microbeam they developed allows high-energy electrons to deposit energy in a pre-selected subset of cells for which the un-irradiated neighbors can be easily identified. She and her co-workers also developed the tools to analyze cell signaling in a three-dimensional environment, ending the constraints of the more common two-dimensional approach. They designed and assembled a high-speed confocal microscope that simultaneously acquires up to 30 two-color images a second, allowing scientists to quantitatively measure the spatial and temporal characteristics of cell-to-cell signals in three dimensions and in real time.

1) What inspires you to work in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)?
What originally inspired me to work in science was my relationship with good mentors. I have been fortunate through much of my career to have people who have encouraged me to reach for my goals. I think on a more immediate and daily basis, what inspires me is the problem-solving nature of my job. Whether it is building something new, troubleshooting an experiment, or writing a manuscript, you are always thinking and always learning.

2) What excites you about your work?
The primary thing that excites me about my work is the ability to work between different disciplines. Here at a national laboratory, we have the opportunity to work with scientists in all different areas of research, computational biologists, chemical physicists, etc. This collaboration allows us to come at problems from new directions and often offer unique ways to solve problems. I also enjoy the fact that I am always learning something new. Science is not stagnant, and I can honestly say that what I am working on this year is not what I worked on last year, and I know in the future it will be different still.

3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
I think the DOE programs in education do a lot to encourage underrepresented groups to pursue science- and math-based careers. I have been fortunate to mentor in many of the various programs, and the students have been outstanding. From my experience, I find a large part of the reluctance to pursue, or the lack of success in, science stems from a lack in confidence. Science can be a fairly unforgiving pursuit, with harsh reviews from your peers being part of how we do business. To develop confidence, students must be encouraged for good work, but they also should not be coddled for underachieving. Developing confident critical thinkers is a recipe for success regardless of race, gender or any other variable. Good mentoring relationships are key to this.

4) Do you have tips you would recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
Be flexible. Research is never a direct line from A to B. Get the broadest undergraduate experience you can, as you will be very focused on a particular problem in your research career. Having a broad background will make you more open minded and a better problem solver. Learn to write well. It may not sound like much, but it will serve you throughout your career.

5) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
I am an avid tennis player. It is the best way I know to have fun, relieve stress and get exercise all at the same time. I also enjoy sewing and volunteer as a seamstress for the Mid-Columbia Ballet during performances of “The Nutcracker.” I am attempting to get back into art after a hiatus of more than 20 years.