Office of Economic Impact and Diversity

Women @ Energy: Brenna Flaugher

September 22, 2015

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Brenna Flaugher is a member of two collaborations that are aimed at understanding the formation and future of our universe. In particular they are studying dark energy, the accelerating expansion of our universe. She was in charge of building the Dark Energy Camera (DECam), a new large (about five tons) camera for a telescope in Chile (2003-2012).

1) What inspired you to work in STEM?

In high school I wanted to be a vet and work with animals. In college I started out in the pre-med courses, but in my sophomore year I discovered that I liked physics much better than biology or chemistry so I switched majors.

Brenna attended Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and earned a Ph.D from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

 

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

My work is aimed at understanding our universe. As we have learned more about it we have realized that we only understand about 5% of the energy in the universe. The rest is in dark matter and dark energy. I was in charge of building a 500 Mpixel, five-ton camera to measure the effects of dark energy. We put it on the telescope in August 2012, and we have been collecting images since then. The first scientific papers are starting to come out. It will take a while to get to the dark energy measurements, but we have already made discoveries that were not expected. For example, our collaboration discovered seven new dwarf galaxies that have been captured by the Milky Way.  It was great fun to be part of building the camera and to see all the people who are using the data to do great science.

Brenna Flaugher is a member of two collaborations that are aimed at understanding the formation and future of our universe. In particular they are studying dark energy, the accelerating expansion of our universe. She was in charge of building the Dark Energy Camera (DECam), a new large (about five tons) camera for a telescope in Chile (2003-2012). Now that camera is taking data, and she works within postdocs and with students on analyzing the data. She is also a scientist for a new project, DESI, which is building a massive multiobject spectroscopic instrument for a telescope on Kitt Peak in Tucson, Arizona. This instrument is also aimed at understanding the nature of dark energy.

 

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

I dislike this question. Asking the women and underrepresented people how to get more in the field is like looking under the lamppost for the car keys -- it is only place light enough to see. We are a captive audience and easy to access, but we chose to be in the field so we should be disqualified from answering this question. The people who chose something else or dropped out of the pipeline should be interviewed and asked why they made that choice. That said, role models are a big influence. Most of the women I know who give plenary talks have young women come up afterward and ask questions, ask for jobs, and express strong interest. Getting more female and URM speakers giving the big plenary talks would be a start. Also, moving women into more of the senior management and leadership positions shows younger women that there is a career path that doesn’t stall out.

 

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

There are many unanswered questions in science and cosmology. The technology for measuring the properties of our universe is going through a revolution and we will soon have more data than people to analyze it. If cosmology excites you, then go online and search around; there is a lot of great information out there. Also take courses, read books and papers, go to lectures, and try to find summer programs at universities or a lab such as Fermilab to experience what it is like to do research firsthand.

 

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

My hobbies are gardening and biking. I grow lots of greens (kale, swiss chard, mustard greens), tomatoes, basil, and Pedron peppers. I bike to work and try to get out on the weekends for longer rides.