Meet Erica West: future physicist

Erica West (Download Image) Erica West is spending her summer at the Laboratory working with several mentors from the Computational Chemistry and Materials Science Summer School running classical molecular dynamics simulations.

Editor's Note: This is one in a series of articles highlighting the diverse group of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory summer students.


The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) student internship program is designed to allow students to engage in work-study employment opportunities in relevant science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and administrative fields during the summer academic break. This year, LLNL expects to welcome more than 900 students from universities nationwide and around the world.

Introducing Erica Aleathia West

Hometown: Tampa, Florida

University/educational background: West received a bachelor’s degree in physics from Tennessee State University and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in physics from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.

Major: Physics

Anticipated graduation year: 2019

Working in: Physical and Life Sciences

What interested you in pursuing a summer internship at the Laboratory?

I was familiar with all of the important science that happens at LLNL. When returning to finish my Ph.D. in physics, I decided to take every opportunity to learn and hone my skills. I could not pass up an opportunity to be in a place with so many possibilities.

What are you working on at the Laboratory?

I am working with several mentors from the Computational Chemistry and Materials Science Summer School (CCMS) running classical molecular dynamics simulations using the Vienna Ab Initio Simulation Package (VASP) model computer program.

What do you enjoy most about interning at the Laboratory?

The best part about being at the Laboratory is the diverse, collaborative space. I have had the opportunity to talk/work with scientists and students from all over the world studying a variety of subjects.

What have you learned (or are learning) that has made a difference to you?

I am learning some amazing science from meeting with my mentors, attending lectures and discussing science with fellow students. The most interesting thing, at the moment, is learning how to manipulate the molecular dynamics simulation model, VASP. Learning how to properly use VASP has deepened my fundamental understanding of material science and chemistry.

Where do you see yourself after graduation? What is your dream job?

I have not decided what I will do after graduation yet, but I definitely enjoy the type of learning and working environment supported here at the Laboratory. For now, my main focus is on passing the qualifying exam.

Who/what has inspired you to pursue an education and career in a STEM field?

I come from a family of scientists and engineers. My grandfather, an agricultural scientist/engineer, was the cornerstone of my family. His contributions to education, farming, civil rights and to his community are an inspiration and serve as the benchmark for what I want my personal and professional life to be. He, along with my parents, serve as motivation for achieving my goals. My father, a civil engineer, tells a story about a road trip to visit my grandparents. Apparently, I was a precociously inquisitive 4-year-old and asked my mother question after question about the stars. She and my grandmother, both educators, bought me every book about space they could find, and my father began enrolling me in STEM intensive programs outside of school. From then on, I would feed an endless appetite for science.

What has been your biggest challenge to overcome?

I think my biggest challenge has been getting out of my own way. I realize that may sound cliché, but it is true. Changing the way I think about success and failure has made all the difference in how I approach new environments and problems. Previously, I let fears guide me. I had a fear of not doing well, of not being accepted by my colleagues and fears about not understanding a particular scientific concept. I realized if I am going to achieve a goal, I have to know that I have the ability to do it or I would not be here in the first place. Learning to conquer my fears has been one of the most challenging things to overcome. This, combined with being present and diligent, has made all the difference.

What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment so far?

I think my biggest accomplishment so far has been gathering the courage to return to school to complete a Ph.D. in physics. During my previous graduate school experience, I, along with my father, was managing care for my mother. She was battling heart failure as a result of cancer treatments earlier in life. Ultimately, she lost her battle and took my heart with her. Managing that situation while trying to be productive in school proved to be an insurmountable task for me at the time. I made the difficult, but necessary, decision to leave school. Thankfully, time heals most wounds. In addition, I have a wonderful husband and phenomenal friends and family who encouraged me to begin this journey again. Without their love and support I would not be here today working to pursue my lifelong dream of acquiring a Ph.D. in physics.

As a college student, what is the most important lesson you have learned?

The most important lesson I have learned is to be present and diligent. It is impossible to know everything, and infinitely more difficult to get everything right all the time. I love to do well. Sometimes it was difficult to be present and diligent at times when I thought I was not doing well in a subject. It is easy to give up or to pursue something different. I have learned that if I remain present, diligent and patient, eventually I can reach some level of mastery. Doing those two things have been crucial to my growth as a scientist and a person.

What advice would you give a high school student?

High school is such an interesting time. I would encourage a high school student to pursue their goals/dreams sooner rather than later, to invest heavily in themselves and to remember to be nice along the way. Developing and maintaining relationships is very important.


What do you like to do in your spare time? What are your hobbies?

I love, love, love to travel. I believe traveling cultivates the mind in ways reading a book or watching a movie cannot. An unspoken personal goal is to travel to two new countries a year. I am a history buff as well. Learning about ancient civilizations and their way of life is an obsession of mine. Last, but certainly not least, I love to dance. Specifically, I love jazz and tap.

What is next for you/what are you looking forward to?

After leaving Livermore, I plan to return to Tallahassee to begin my final year of courses and to take the qualifying exam. After that, I have my sights set on developing the dissertation in collaboration with a national laboratory or company. I am really looking forward to spending time with my husband and my little dog Max.


To learn more about summer internships and the Laboratory’s scholar programs, visit the scholars@llnl website.

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