EYH alumna engineers a rewarding Lab career

Elizabeth Wheeler knows first-hand the value of "Expanding Your Horizons in Math and Science"(EYH) and the impact it can have on a young woman.

A Lab chemical engineer matrixed to Global Security, Wheeler attended two Tri-Valley EYH conferences while a young student in Livermore in 1984 and 1985, and credits the sessions with helping her make a career choice.

"What stands out for me is the year that Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, was the keynote speaker," she recalls. "She made a big impression, especially when she told us that if we gave her our addresses, she would send us her photo. I was amazed that she was so nice and willing to take time out of her busy schedule to interact with us."

Wheeler moved to California from Kent County, England, when she was in the seventh grade. "Moving here was a big change for me," she remarked.

She said she never felt pressured to pursue a science career, but it seemed natural — science and math were subjects in which she excelled and she enjoyed.

It was the variety of workshops at EYH coupled with the sheer fun of science that captured her attention. After high school, she earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from UC Davis, followed by a master's and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Stanford University.

Wheeler first came to LLNL in 1998 as a postdoc in what was then the Chemistry and Materials Science Directorate, and was matrixed to the National Ignition Facility. She has worked at the Lab ever since.

"I am a chemical engineer, but I am more the engineer part of that title," she explains. Her work in Global Security allows her to integrate engineering and biology. "My job is never boring. I love working with multi-disciplinary teams and seeing aspects of projects from different perspectives," she said.

Wheeler began leading workshops at EYH while in graduate school at Stanford. "What I love about volunteering at EYH is that it reminds me why I got interested in science in the first place — science is fun.

"Nothing is more exciting than seeing a child's face light up as they see ordinary ingredients mix to form something unexpected. Making slime and oobleck are especially good at achieving this response."

At one particular conference, she organized a special activity called "Mystery Women" where girls could interact with women and then guess what type of scientists or engineers they were.

Wheeler has continued her involvement in EYH and in 2001 and 2002 was a conference co-coordinator. At this year's event, along with Jan Tulk, she organized the career fair/science expo.

Wheeler is one of several EYH alumnae now working at the Lab. Others include: Stephanie Malfati, Marisa Price, Christine Hara and Ember Foley.

"We know there are more, and we'd like to identify them," said Susan Springer, this year's conference chair.

"It's important to break down the stereotypes and let girls know that a scientist isn't just a person wearing a white lab coat with a pocket protector. They are normal people with exciting jobs," Wheeler said.

"I hope my two young daughters will be able to attend EYH when they are old enough and get a taste of all the exciting careers that involve math and science."

March 5, 2010


Linda Lucchetti
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