Gert Patello is a senior project manager at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). She oversees PNNL’s Isotope Program and serves as the main programmatic interface for PNNL with the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science Nuclear Physics Isotope Program. In addition, she serves on the DOE’s Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee and as a programmatic interface for PNNL and the DOE Office of Science Fusion Energy Sciences Program. Her interests include management of medium- to high-risk radiochemical science projects and providing strategic leadership for sector portfolios. She earned a BS in ceramics engineering and a PhD in ceramics from Alfred University in New York.
What inspired you to work in STEM?
I always enjoyed math and science more than humanities, so it was a natural fit for my aptitude, interests, and capabilities. I had an inspiring chemistry teacher in high school. He recruited me and other peers for the advanced placement chemistry course the first year it was offered in our high school. It was exciting to be a part of the course because the teacher involved the students in setting up new equipment that had been funded under a grant and helping flesh out the new curriculum.
What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?
For me, it’s the ability to work for national mission and knowing that I can have a large impact. For example, in my work for the DOE Isotope Program I can see how the successes we achieve will directly affect the ways isotopes are used in medical and industrial settings, which has an impact on people’s lives and is a huge benefit to society as a whole.
How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
Women and girls just don’t suddenly get interested in science in college. They need find the STEM path young, ideally at the elementary level. We need to recognize interest and aptitude, encourage them, give them opportunities and provide supportive environments. I had wonderfully encouraging parents. My father was a contractor and my mother was an accountant, so they used elements of STEM technical skills daily. My mom inspired me when she went back to school and earned her advanced degree while working and raising a family. There was also no question in our house about whether we were going to college, it was just assumed. I also had a supportive peer network – my female friends and I all worked at being at the top of the class. In the school environment, I never felt intimidated in science and math classrooms. We need to provide that environment and encouragement for women and underrepresented groups. Mentoring is also key. I am currently mentoring several early career staff. It is very rewarding.
Do you have tips you’d recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
Focus on degrees with a solid scientific base and develop long-term goals if you want to advance. Get involved in internships – working for national laboratories or companies can be very influential in directing your path. For example, one of my internships influenced me in what you might call a “negative” way. The internship work I was doing demonstrated what opportunities were available at different degree levels, and the options for someone with a bachelor’s degree wasn’t the work I wanted to be doing. Knowing that helped with the decision to pursue my doctorate. Internships enable students to figure out what path they want to be on, to know “this is what I love versus this isn’t what I want to do.”
When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
I’ve been singing in my church choir for 25 years. It was one the first community activities I became involve in when I moved to Richland. I love singing and it was a good way to meet new people and make friends. I also volunteer with my son’s boy scout troop and for the annual fundraiser for the school my children attended – even though they grew up and are no longer enrolled! For my down time, I enjoy reading and sewing.
Learn more about our programs & resources for women and girls in STEM at http://www.energy.gov/women