Dr. Johanna Wolfson is the director of EERE's Technology-to-Market, leading efforts to reduce barriers and inefficiencies in the U.S. innovation system in service of getting promising clean energy technologies to market. Johanna has a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from MIT.
1.) What inspired you to work in STEM?
I never considered STEM as a career choice until college. In fact, I was a history major from the start, and only added my chemistry degree later on. Physical chemistry, which is where chemistry, math, and physics collide, completely hooked me. It's about how a few deep physical principles explain all the complexity of how atoms and molecules interact. I went to grad school for physical chemistry, because I simply wanted to keep learning about it. It was while I was doing research for my PhD that I became interested in my role as a scientist beyond the lab. I started to wonder why so much research in the lab never becomes a reality, and about the connection between science done in the lab, and policy made in Washington.
Prior to EERE, Johanna was with the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems in Boston where she led TechBridge, an innovative program for cleantech startups that mitigates risk for investors and strategic partners via technical demonstration and validation. Previously, she served as the President of the MIT Science Policy Initiative, engaging scientists and engineers in the policy dialogue for R&D funding and better innovation models.
2.) What excites you about your work at the Department of Energy?
What excites me is the enormity and complexity of the energy and climate challenge, coupled with a deeply-held belief that we can absolutely solve it—and build a stronger economy while doing so. I came to DOE because DOE is a critical fulcrum in this great task of achieving the clean energy transition. More specifically, the reason I’m working on commercialization challenges at DOE is because I believe there remains a deep disconnect between what government is doing right now, and what the private sector needs to see in order to carry solutions forward. If we can do better on the government side, I believe we can make clean energy technologies cost-effective, so that they are competitive in the market.
Existing efforts under Tech-to-Market help launch entrepreneurs and new businesses out of universities and National Labs, help support early-stage clean energy businesses with funding and incubator services, provide small businesses with technical support at National Labs, and position startup companies for scale-up. She is also responsible for developing new EERE programs in service of the Tech-to-Market mission, and for coordinating Tech-to-Market efforts across EERE¹s technology offices.
3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
I think it’s critical to expose girls and underrepresented groups at an early age to strong and relatable mentors who are doing amazing work in STEM! I think programs that connect young people with scientists they can relate to can really be inspirational! It’s one thing to read about a NASA astronaut and see them in a video, but it’s a whole different experience meeting them in person and hearing their unique life stories and career paths.
4.) Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
First, take the challenge of a STEM education head-on and get experience doing hard science — it will serve you well. But don’t ignore the “soft” skills — they are every bit as important. And if you master both, you will be unstoppable. Second, don’t assume you should do what others find interesting. Run towards what’s interesting to you, even if no one else sees why (yet). You’re probably on to something.
5.) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
Yoga, travel and exploring new places.