Jennifer Weidman came to work at NETL as a contractor for the DOE in November 2018. She is a research scientist working on developing high value carbon nanomaterials from an inexpensive coal feedstock, with applications such as sorbents for water purification. Previously, Jennifer worked as a research scientist for W. R. Grace working on Ziegler-Natta catalysts for polypropylene production. She obtained her PhD in chemical engineering at the University of Notre Dame, where her researched focused on polymer membranes for use in gas separations. Prior to this, Jennifer attended West Virginia University for her B.S. in chemical engineering. She is originally from Charleston, West Virginia and is a proud dog mom of a Great Dane-Lab mix, Rudy, and a Plott Hound, Louie.
What inspired you to work in STEM?
I’ve always found science and technology fascinating; these were my favorite subjects in school, so it was a natural path for me to continue my education and career in STEM. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that scientific research has such a profound impact on how society functions. Scientists and engineers truly hold the power to affect everybody. Cars, airplanes, electricity, clean drinking water, indoor plumbing, cell phones, modern medicine – could you imagine if these things had never been invented? For me, getting to play a part in this world of scientific discovery is exhilarating. In particular, I’ve pursued a career in material science because materials make up everything around us, and therefore there is such potential in this field to make an impact. I love the idea that starting from basic building blocks, I can engineer materials with properties specific to a target application, and I get to see these materials come to life in the lab.
What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?
One great thing about the research being carried out at the DOE is that we are tackling energy and environmental problems facing our nation today and coming up with solutions for our society. I find it exciting to be a part of this important work. The project I’m involved in is opening up new market opportunities for the coal sector and simultaneously creating a new, less expensive supply of carbon nanomaterials, such as graphene quantum dots, that have a multitude of applications. Additionally, I love that as a research scientist, I play an active hands-on role in the lab designing and carrying out experiments.
How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
As a young child, I was lucky to be influenced by my parents, who are both chemists. Science was part of my and my brother’s everyday life, including playing games of “mad scientist”, inventing a time machine in our basement, and pretending to be explorers discovering a new land in the woods behind our house. Our parents nurtured our curiosity and encouraged us to try to figure out how things worked and why. I believe this influence was a huge factor in my decision to pursue STEM; quite simply, as long as I can remember I was never given any reason to doubt that I could succeed in science, despite the underrepresentation of my gender. I know not all young girls grow up in this encouraging atmosphere.
Although we can’t control the home life of girls all over the country, I think if we can find ways to incorporate science for girls at a young age in everyday areas of life, it could help normalize the idea of women in science while their minds are impressionable. This could be as simple as including science-based toys (e.g. make-believe chemistry sets, dolls dressed as doctors, astronaut dress-up gear) in preschools and kindergarten or as complex as after-school science programs.
Additionally, I think it important to portray girls and women in science in the media as well. Commercials, ads, character roles in sit-coms, and so on, should make an effort to include females in science roles, and not solely when the product or plot is science-based. For example, a lipstick commercial could show a woman engineer modeling the makeup, a TV show based on the comings and goings of a friend group could have a female lead who is a research scientist, an ad for a smart watch could have a woman doctor wearing the watch, etc. The more often woman in STEM careers show up in everyday life, the more the message will be transmitted that this is a viable route. It needs to be something that young girls see and hear all the time.
Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
Don’t get too hung up on what you don’t know. Often when I’ve spoken with young people who were considering a path in STEM, I’ve heard worries about not knowing enough science, feeling inadequate because they hadn’t taken as many science courses in high school as their friend who went to a private school, or doubts that they can succeed if they haven’t gotten straight A’s. Science and engineering is a field of learning. This is true throughout school and in the eventual career. You won’t be expected to know everything all the time; a huge percentage of the job is figuring out what you don’t know, constantly learning new concepts, and getting help from others. It is a collaborative and rewarding field. To be successful in STEM, it is most important to have a passion for learning, to find science interesting, and to have the drive to work hard.
When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
In my free time, I like to work on agility training with my two dogs, Rudy and Louie. I also enjoy spending time outside doing activities like running, hiking, cycling, and camping. During more dreary weather, I love curling up and reading a good book.
Learn more about our programs & resources for women and girls in STEM at http://www.energy.gov/women