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Women @ Energy: Vanessa Tolosa

July 29, 2014 - 1:23pm


Vanessa Tolosa is an engineer in the Materials Engineering Division at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

Vanessa Tolosa is an engineer in the Materials Engineering Division at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

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Vanessa Tolosa is an engineer in the Materials Engineering Division at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).  She’s been at LLNL since 2010 when she was hired as a post-doc to work on the DOE-funded Artificial Retina project and other implantable biomedical devices.  Since then, Vanessa has worked as a Principal Investigator and as a technical lead on several bioengineering projects.  She contributes to work at LLNL developing long-term implantable neural interfaces and biochemical microsensors for therapeutic applications in humans and for investigational platforms for scientific discovery.  Vanessa received her Ph.D. in chemical engineering with a focus on biotechnology from the University of California, Los Angeles and her B.S. in chemical engineering at the University of Florida. In between undergrad and grad school, Vanessa worked as a staff engineer designing and maintaining remediation systems for Superfund sites in Florida.  Outside of work, Vanessa seeks opportunities to support STEM education and engage the public on the benefits of science and engineering.

1) What inspired you to work in STEM?

My earliest memory of having a strong interest in science was in 2nd grade. During our “free reading time,” I remember always choosing the astronomy books in the back of the classroom and reading them cover to cover. I’ve always liked mysteries and I’ve always liked science, which to me go hand-in-hand. I feel very fortunate that my natural tendencies toward science and math were NOT muted, but instead encouraged by a series of teachers I had in middle school and high school. Though my parents did not have the opportunity at education that I had, they knew it was important and supported me throughout which has allowed me to have a career in STEM today.

2) What excites you about your work?

What I love the most about my work is that a big component of it feels more like a hobby, than a job.  The articles that I read in my free time overlaps with a lot of what I have to learn for my work.  When it comes down to it, my job is to solve puzzles. I have to think outside the box, and use science and engineering to solve those puzzles. Working for a national lab makes the work even more rewarding, knowing that when we solve some of those puzzles, we will have an impact on society. Another benefit - my work is never boring.  There’s too much too learn to ever get bored.

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

A whole book could probably be written to answer this question and to figure out why this question even exists. My simplified answer would be- encourage more high visibility, positive, women-in-science role models, like the idea behind Women @ Energy.  There are years of stereotypes about women that we have to overcome. And though we’ve come a long way since the 1950’s, remnants of those stereotypes still exist, among men and women.  Seeing real women in leadership and scientific and engineering roles more often would make it less of a caricature often portrayed in media today.  For other underrepresented groups in STEM, the stereotype is not so far from the 50’s. I recall one trip to southeast asia (an underrepresented group in STEM and post-graduate degrees), my cousin, in a sincere tone, asked why I was getting an engineering degree, “Isn’t that a man’s job?” He wasn’t trying to be disrespectful; he was genuinely confused by my choice.

Along with visibility, is more support for science education.  I feel like scientists are like aliens to the general public, speaking a different language, thinking differently.  If students are comfortable with scientific concepts growing up, it would be less foreign and therefore less scary when it comes time to pick a career or major. And to have students who are comfortable with science, we need teachers who are comfortable with science.  I think additional science training for teachers would go along way. One teacher scared of science, infects classrooms full of students who grow up uncomfortable with science.

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

Don’t let titles and labels act as boundaries. The lines across different disciplines are blurring. In neural engineering, we regularly work with engineers, biologists, clinicians, and patients. Take any opportunity to get experience outside your field. If you are a material scientist, intern for a lab in molecular biology, organic chemistry, or electrical engineering.  Find out who would benefit the most from your research and spend time with the people or industry you hope to affect.  For example, if you want to develop the next Brain Machine Interface for neural prosthetics, spend time at the VA where you can meet veterans who you’re trying to help or intern for a surgeon who will be using your technology.  The more you know about the entire community, the more effective and impactful you’ll be in your research.

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

What I do with my free time often depends on where I live. When I lived in LA, I enjoyed volunteering for LA Works, attending live concerts and comedy shows, and generally exploring all the city had to offer. These days living in northern california, I found the Bay Area equivalent volunteering group (Hands on Bay Area); I also enjoy taking historical walking tours in SF and supporting local events and businesses in Oakland and the East Bay.