Growing up on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Merlin Theodore knew she’d become an engineer. Her father was so inspired by a female engineer he worked with at an oil refinery that he saw the field as an opportunity for his daughters. Ultimately, five of them became engineers or scientists.
Theodore focused her career on improving manufacturing materials and processes to lower energy use and costs. And, President Biden noticed. In January, Theodore, who works at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), became the first full-time researcher to receive a presidential appointment to the board that governs the National Science Foundation. The National Science Board is an independent body of 25 advisors to the president and Congress on policy matters related to science, engineering, and education.
“I’m excited to make an impact on the U.S. economy through manufacturing science and engineering. What can we do to make a difference? That’s what I’m looking at,” Theodore says. “When we develop new technologies, we have to think about deployment and workforce development.”
Workforce development includes encouraging science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students. Theodore supports several STEM programs, but she is especially passionate about the one her best friend founded that Theodore helped build: the D. Cromwell STEM Scholarship. Their mission is to increase the pool of Virgin Islanders entering STEM by providing financial support and mentorship throughout their academic career and beyond.
Theodore’s career experience is diverse—defense, industrial manufacturing production, clean energy applications—and runs the gamut from early-stage research to deployment. She helped start a carbon fiber pilot plant at Georgia Tech, applied that knowledge as head of excellence at SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers, then became director of the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility at ORNL.
Clean En∙er∙gy Cham∙pi∙on
/klēn/ /ˈenərjē/ /ˈCHampēən/
1. A person or group that takes action to support or join the transition to a renewable energy economy, with the knowledge that reducing carbon emissions provides daily benefits to every American so they can live happy and healthy lives.
Today her work is focused on scaling up advanced fiber manufacturing and its components for clean energy applications—wind power, automotive, compressed gas storage, and infrastructure—to reduce costs and energy in manufacturing systems.
“My work has carried over into my home—I’m not normal anymore!” she says with a laugh. She explains that she used to get all her grocery shopping done in an hour, but now she finds herself considering the manufacturing costs and energy in the products she buys. “I stopped buying canned beans, because I think of the materials and energy it takes to produce that can of beans.” Dry beans last longer and are healthier, anyway, she says.
“I also got a list of appliances and the energy they use, and I was shocked. I don’t really use my dishwasher. I used to blow-dry my hair, and now I let it air-dry. And I’m thinking about solar panels now.” (EERE sent Theodore the Homeowner’s Guide to Going Solar and a blog post about financing a rooftop solar energy system to help her get started.)
Theodore knows solar and other types of renewable energy provide backup power in the event of an outage. She sent her family and friends, who have seen numerous hurricanes and power outages living on St. Croix, solar-charged portable battery packs.
From family to her mentees to female staff at ORNL to struggling strangers who cross her path, Theodore helps a lot of people. Those people and many more are celebrating the news of Theodore’s national recognition for her work in advanced manufacturing.
“I’m still getting calls from people congratulating me,” she says. “I was like, ‘This is bigger than me.’ This is about the kids in the projects. It’s about people from the Caribbean islands. It’s about Oak Ridge and minority-serving educational institutions. It’s about all the women. They were all celebrating. It was their win too.”