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Emily Shemon, a nuclear engineer at Argonne National Laboratory, is passionate about showing young women that science, technology, and math careers are a possibility for them.
Nuclear engineer Emily Shemon joined Argonne National Laboratory in 2011 and holds a unique joint appointment. As a member of Argonne’s Nuclear Engineering division, she works on the development of neutronics methods and codes for fast reaction applications. At Argonne’s Leadership Computing Facility, Emily works with investigators who perform massively parallel science calculations on U.S. Department of Energy supercomputers. Her dual role offers a unique perspective on the design and purpose of advanced simulation tools.
A native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Emily was inspired to study nuclear engineering after learning about mail irradiation performed on federal mail in response to the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States. With undergraduate minors of mathematics and Spanish, she received a U.S. Fulbright Scholarship to work at a national laboratory in Madrid. Her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, all in nuclear engineering, were awarded by the University of Michigan. As a PhD candidate, she specialized in developing computational methods for neutron physics in nuclear reactor applications.
Emily participates in community nuclear engineering outreach programs as well as STEM-related outreach programs to young women. She has delivered talks on nuclear engineering to local schools, participated in career fairs, and served as a mentor for Argonne-sponsored “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” and “Science Careers in Search of Women” events for middle- and high-school girls. She is passionate about showing young women that science, technology, and math careers are a possibility for them.
1) What inspired you to work in STEM?
In middle school, I had a memorable math teacher who really made algebra fun. He came up with songs to teach us how to solve simple algebraic equations, and stories to explain how the equations related to real life. From that point on, I was fascinated by mathematics and the application of math to scientific problems. By late high school, I knew I would study engineering. I decided on nuclear engineering during my second year of college after learning about the incredible power of radiation and nuclear processes. At that point in time, federal mail was being irradiated following the anthrax terrorist attacks. Using nuclear technology to make the world a safer place was inspiring to me.
2) What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?
I work with cutting-edge scientific applications that push the boundaries of what sort of information we can glean from numerical simulations. These simulations contribute to the safe and efficient use of nuclear energy. For many calculations, we use one of the fastest supercomputers in the world, Argonne’s BlueGene/Q machine. It’s exciting to use a world-class resource to work on big issues. It’s also exciting to learn something new every day—there are so many learning opportunities working with leading scientists and engineers at Argonne.
3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
We can start by expanding mentoring opportunities for young women and other underrepresented groups in STEM. Every middle-school student should have the opportunity to be paired up with a local STEM professional or teacher who will encourage their interests, get them involved in STEM-related extracurricular activities, help them decide their coursework, and let them know that STEM careers are a real possibility for them.
Engagement must begin in middle school and continue throughout the college years. Looking back, I had a few special mentors, namely teachers and professors, whose encouragement made me know that I belonged in STEM before I even got to college. Once in college, I never gave it a second thought that I was often the only woman in class.
4) Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
There are so many types of specialties in nuclear engineering, including working on nuclear reactor research, developing radiation detectors for national security, and designing radiation therapy cancer treatments.
I would encourage students to seek a research opportunity in their field of interest to get some hands-on experience during their college years. I worked in a research lab early on in college, and this helped solidify my specialty choice. More important, an early research experience allows you to meet and network with professionals in the field and develop mentoring relationships that may carry on through your lifetime. Making these connections early helped me identify opportunities and experiences that I might not have otherwise known about.
5) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
I really enjoy spending time with family and watching college sports. My family and I are all huge University of Michigan sports fans, especially football and basketball. I also really enjoy trying out new recipes and new restaurants with my husband.