Kristin Potter is a senior scientist specializing in data visualization at the National Renewable Energy Lab’s Insight Center. Her research is focused on methods for improving visualization techniques by adding qualitative information regarding reliability and variability to the data display. This work includes researching statistical measures of uncertainty, error, and confidence levels, and translating the semantic meaning of these measures into visual metaphors. She is also interested in topics related to decision-making, performance visualization, method evaluation, and application-specific techniques. Prior to joining NREL in 2017, she worked as a research computing consultant at the University of Oregon providing visualization services, computational training and education, and other support to researchers across campus. She also was a research scientist at the University of Utah, working on projects related to the visualization of uncertainty and error in data. She received her Ph.D. in 2010 and master’s degree in 2003 from Utah; she received her bachelor’s degree in computer science and fine art in 2000 from the University of Oregon.
What inspired you to work in STEM?
My mom always inspired and encouraged me to go into computer science. When I was in elementary school, she worked as a math instructor at the local community college. When I came with her to her office, she taught me how to code as a way to keep me busy. Together, she and I coded up tic-tac-toe and a 20-questions game in visual basic, and then I got to play the games we wrote. The games were easy, and I could always beat the computer, but I enjoyed it so much! She then encouraged me to continue to learn about coding through high school and I entered college as a computer science major. What I really wanted to do was work at Pixar, so I started to study computer graphics as well as fine arts, not knowing which path I wanted to take. Eventually, it became clear that my talents aligned more with computing and fine arts was left as a hobby. I went to Utah to get a master’s degree in computer graphics, still with the idea of going to work at Pixar; but once I started to do research, I found a passion for research that I didn’t expect. I stayed in Utah to get a Ph.D. and, during that time, I discovered visualization. For me, that became an application of the computer graphics that I loved in science. I found great inspiration in being able to work closely with scientists in different domains, learn about their work and, most important, help them out with their scientific discoveries. Since graduating, I have spent my time continuing to help scientists discover through visualization, while also researching new and novel methods for the visual treatment of uncertainties within scientific data sets. I am so happy to be able to continue these pursuits at NREL.
What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?
I love the mission of NREL, particularly how our work has impact all across the United States. But what I love even more is the great collaborators I get to work with on a daily basis. The variety of projects really keeps me on my toes!
How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
I think efforts like this one help a lot. Seeing people who look like you doing amazing work in STEM is a real inspiration. Also, spreading the word about how much opportunity there is in STEM and how you don’t have to be a genius or super nerd to be in the field. All it takes is persistence and a willingness to learn! When I went to grad school, I had no idea how I was going to pay for it, I just knew I wanted to learn more. To my surprise, there was funding for me to work on several research projects through my faculty advisers and so almost all of my grad school was paid for! There are many fellowships and scholarships available right now making it a great time to pursue a higher degree.
Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
One of the best things about visualization is that there are so many paths into the field. My expertise is based in computer science, but my interest in fine art definitely helped me develop an aesthetic for my designs. I have colleagues who have entered the field from other fields, including geography, virtual reality, statistics, art, and human cognition, all of which contribute to the vibrancy of the field. The one unifying aspect is the need to be able code and use software to create the visual imagery. Also, the field is face-paced, so the tools and coding languages change often; so, being able to learn new things is really important.
When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
I have an amazing dog named Zephyr who I take out on hikes and other adventures as much as possible. I also have a garden in my front yard and enjoy growing all sorts of things and figuring out new and delicious things to cook with them!
Learn more about our programs & resources for women and girls in STEM at http://www.energy.gov/women