J’Tia Hart has always excelled at math and science. In fact, she “out-mathed” her parents in the eighth grade. She knew she wanted to use those skills to chart her own path in a STEM profession (science, technology, engineering, and math), but she didn’t see many other African Americans or women in STEM jobs.
“Kids want to do and see what they see, what’s modeled for them,” she observes. “I always felt like an outsider and didn’t feel like I belonged [in STEM]. And then I’d see somebody who looked like me who was doing interesting stuff. Maybe not exactly what I wanted to do, but still, they took that leap of faith, they went for it, and they’re doing alright.”
J’Tia took that leap of faith to pursue her interest in science when she went to college. During her freshman year, she had the chance to go underway on a nuclear submarine. She was awed by the power contained in that one vessel, which was both fueled by nuclear energy and carried nuclear missiles. She recognized that the same energy source that enabled progress could also be a tool for mass destruction. That experience, along with encouragement from an influential college professor and the support of her parents, put her on the path to becoming a nuclear engineer.
The more J’Tia learned about nuclear engineering, the more her curiosity grew. “I wanted to know more, I wanted to do experiments, I wanted to shape policy,” she explains. “I ended up pursuing a Ph.D. because I wanted to lead research projects and not just be on the team.”
A Career at DOE
J’Tia determined early on in her nuclear engineering studies that she wanted to work at the Department of Energy , which she calls the “the brass ring” for nuclear scientists. She points out that, “DOE has been there from the beginning with nuclear weapons. We’re still the leaders in nuclear weapon technology.”
J’Tia spent the first part of her DOE career working at national labs in Idaho and Illinois, where she directed and conducted research. She joined DOE’s Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence (DOE-IN), a member of the Intelligence Community (IC), to apply her expertise on the nuclear fuel cycle to intelligence issues. She collaborated with other IC agencies to co-author analytical papers and ensure the accuracy of finished intelligence products for policy-makers.
DOE-IN holds a unique role in the IC: it reports to both the Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of Energy. In essence, DOE-IN acts like a bridge between DOE and the IC: it provides scientific and technical expertise to the IC and advises on intelligence matters within DOE.
J’Tia’s current role as the executive briefer to Secretary of Energy Rick Perry allows her to merge her experience in the lab with the IC. The job requires J’Tia to apply her nuanced understanding of the nuclear fuel cycle to the DOE’s intelligence and policy priorities, helping policy-makers navigate complicated decisions. Every day, she combs through research from the labs and intelligence reports from the IC to cull what’s needed for the Secretary and other DOE leaders. She then condenses and presents the material to highlight what’s most important and relevant to DOE.
Role Model for STEM Success
J’Tia credits her academic and career success to being curious, tenacious, and resilient. “I’m always a yes person. If you’re interested in it, go for it, look into it. If other people can do it, you can do it as well.”
J’Tia knows what it feels like to be an outsider, and she feels strongly about serving as a mentor and advocate for students attracted to STEM careers, particularly women from minority racial and ethnic groups. Her dedication to making an impact led her to the Afro-Academic Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO ) when she was working at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. The program gives students an opportunity “to see how a real scientist works, how you put together a project, and receive one-on-one attention from a Ph.D.”—things you don’t get from a typical science class as a teenager.
During her first year as a mentor with ACT-SO, J’Tia worked with two high school students on research projects of their choosing. One of the students did a project on energy efficiency in homes, using a DOE computer model to look at which products best conserve energy in the home, such as reducing heat loss. The student won a gold medal in the regional competition and advanced to the national competition in Philadelphia.
“That was a great feeling for me,” J’Tia says. “It didn’t even matter if she won or not. It was great just to see her develop as a thinker, learn to think things through. It’s rewarding just to know that she can do these sorts of things.”
The student didn’t win, but she did go on to study engineering in college, demonstrating J’Tia’s firm belief that mentoring and resources can make a difference in encouraging students to pursue STEM careers.
In the years since that experience, J’Tia has transferred to DOE headquarters in Washington, DC, and become a mother—at press time, she had one child and one on the way. Motherhood has given a new dimension to her work at DOE. “I’ve always wanted to take STEM techniques and engineering and apply them to national security,” she explains. “I always wanted to do good things and create a better world, but now I want to do good things to leave a safe and secure world for my children. Now there’s so much more behind it.”