Office of Economic Impact and Diversity

Women @ Energy: Andrea M. Rocha

September 22, 2015

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Andrea is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Biosciences Division at ORNL. As part of the Ecosystems and Networks Integrated with Genes and Molecular Assemblies multi-institutional collaborative project, she is investigating bacteria species differences in gradients of pH, nitrate, uranium, and conductivity to enable the modeling of microbial community resiliency.

1) What inspired you to work in STEM?

As a young girl, I was always fascinated by the natural world around me. I wanted to know why and how things happened. Throughout my childhood, I dreamed of becoming an oceanographer, zoologist, meteorologist, and a botanist. When I started college, I followed my passion by pursing a degree in the biological sciences. It was not until I completed my third undergraduate research experience that I realized I had a strong interest in microbial ecology. Shortly after earning my bachelor’s degree, I joined an environmental remediation company and saw the impacts of pollutants on neighborhoods and the environment. Given my interest in microbiology and desire to address problems with a societal impact, I decided to pursue a career in applied environmental microbiology.

Andrea holds a Ph.D. in engineering science from the University of South Florida, Tampa; a master of science degree in oceanography from Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia; and a bachelor of science degree in biology from Texas A&M University –- Corpus Christi, with major emphasis on marine science and a minor in chemistry. 


2) What excites you about your work at the Department of Energy?

The best part of my job is working with a dynamic and interdisciplinary group of researchers − both within my research team and across Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Through group discussions and collaborative projects, I am able to contribute to the successful completion of research studies, learn from team members, and develop further professionally. 

Another exciting aspect is the ability to mentor undergraduate researchers in the field and in the laboratory. Mentoring students and helping them develop a passion for their research motivates me to pave a path for future generations.

Andrea is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Biosciences Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. As part of the ENIGMA (Ecosystems and Networks Integrated with Genes and Molecular Assemblies) multi-institutional collaborative project, she is investigating keystone bacteria species differences in gradients of pH, nitrate, uranium, and conductivity to enable the modeling of microbial community resiliency. In addition to her research, Andrea anchors the field sampling efforts for ENIGMA investigators at the Oak Ridge field site in radioactive contaminated areas, as well as background sites. She is an interdisciplinary scientist by training with expertise in applied environmental microbiology. Her research interests include bioremediation, bioenergy, and water quality.


3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?

To reach all groups, especially women and underrepresented minorities, the introduction of STEM education should occur at an early age. As a child, I was encouraged to learn about animals through educational books and visits to local museums and aquariums. In school, I was fortunate enough to have teachers that emphasized and valued science as much as reading, writing, and mathematics. The experiences we have as children – as well as the encouragement we receive from our family and teachers − help build the foundation for many young women. Additionally, I believe national organizations in STEM should develop outreach and mentoring programs aimed at targeting students K-12, recent graduates, and young professionals. While it is important to introduce science at a young age, the number of women and underrepresented groups completing a graduate program is still low. There is a need to recruit and maintain the number of women and underrepresented groups working in STEM careers. If we lose them at the early career level, who will be there to inspire the next generation? For me, participating in mentoring programs was crucial to successfully completing my doctorate and is still an important factor as I progress in my career.


4) Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?

Environmental microbiology is an exciting field that provides me with an opportunity to work in areas that have a societal impact. I would recommend to a student who is interested in my career path to take courses across all scientific disciplines. While it is important to develop a strong foundation in biology, I believe that interdisciplinary skill sets and knowledge are equally important in developing research projects and conducting experiments. Don’t be afraid to take courses, such as geology and mathematics, outside of your discipline of study. Additionally, I recommend that students in STEM participate in undergraduate research experiences to help them discover their passions. I completed three such programs as an undergraduate student. These programs provided a stipend that allowed me to support myself, taught me valuable research skills, and helped me determine which area of science I wanted to pursue.


5) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?

In my free time, I enjoy hiking, camping, kayaking, salsa dancing, and exploring the new places. I also love playing racquetball and tennis.