What is your scientific background?
My scientific background is that I’m a Chemical and Biomolecular Engineer. I graduated from North Carolina State University (Go Wolfpack!) and through that I’ve been able to work in very diverse fields everything from biofuels to biotech and vaccines to plastic packaging design to additive technology development. That’s one of the things I love about my degree – the versatility of it really open so many more doors than I ever thought would be possible when I graduated from college.
Why did you choose to become a scientist?
It’s funny I joke that I ended up at scientist because I got very lost on my way to graduation but in a way, it’s very true.
I grew up in a very traditional military family, my parents served, my siblings served, it was what everyone in my hometown did so for me it was a definite path forward when I graduated high school. My senior year, in fact, I had received 4 of 5 appointments to the US Air Force Academy so I thought I was set but in the summer before leaving it got rescinded due to childhood asthma. This left me post-graduation having turned down a few full ride academic and sports scholarships with really no path forward and kind of spinning my wheels. Realizing I didn’t want to delay my education, I signed up for my local community college and their associate in arts program thinking I’d get a history degree transfer to law school then go into the military.
It wasn’t until my freshman year when I had acquired a few science and math minors that I had my calculus teacher sit me down and talk to me about what I really wanted to be a life and if I’d ever heard of Engineering. Much like any good Trekkie I, of course, mentioned Scotty which got some laughs but started me down a path I had never considered for myself. After all, the only engineers I had seen were on tv and they were all men.
Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?
It’s funny, growing up I don’t think I ever realized what the science fields were so I didn’t ever realize my mentor was a “role model in science”. I knew about science from an academic standpoint – biology, chemistry, etc but I never really knew what that meant as far as jobs were concerned. I think school’s today talk a lot more about the job side of subjects then they did when I was growing up.
I mean every day I would be out in the garage tinkering and building with my dad doing electrical work, construction work, automotive work etc and I didn’t realize that I was actually doing a form of engineering. Similarly, I would be at the lab with my mom looking at different microbes under a microscope knowing that this was like biology but not really realizing that this was a science job per see.
So in life I actually had a lot of people that were showcasing science to me but none of them pointing it out as a potential job field so there was a big disconnect between what I was learning in school, what I was doing in my free time and what I could be as a grown-up in my mind because they were never really linked.
How did you choose your field of study?
Once a teacher kind of interjected arm into my path forward for my education I started really looking into the field of engineering I had to be very pragmatic I don’t have a safety net if they want jobs when I got out of school so I wanted to make sure that my career path to be hiring.
As a child of two marines that had spent their careers working in avionics and a huge Star Trek fan, the field of Aerospace Engineering was something that I immediately was drawn towards but when I looked at the career outlook it wasn’t a positive one. As the avionics bases near my home began to have their planes decommissioned and doors closed the writing on the wall that government funding was going to start to become limited moving forward was very prevalent and the beacons of hope that are Elon Musk and Richard Branson were not visible yet.
Thus I started researching Engineering fields that would be hiring when I graduated (which in 2009 was actually asking a lot) as well as offered versatility since I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. That’s how I found Chemical & Biomolecular engineering, it offered me the potential to still do aerospace while also enabling me to work in biotech, traditional chemical, packaging design, automotive, etc. It was the only degree that had a touchpoint in most major industries which enabled me the hope of a job after graduation and the ability to follow my passion for technology in what every direction it went.
Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?
STEM Outreach has always been important for me. It was something I took a large part in during high school and college and when I transitioned to the workforce was something I continued with local non-profits. Most of the companies I worked with tried to be progressive by setting up women mentorship programs both with peers and higher level women but often there weren’t a large number of women in the higher ranks and if there were they weren’t having families.
So in 2015, I made a conscious choice to move full time into Science Communication in hopes of helping to inspire future young women to pursue STEM regardless of the stereotypes that have been set in front of them. I want to help push the boundaries for women in science and be on the forefront of inspiring young girls to pursue their dreams
So for me, day-to-day life is outreach and working with organizations that are focused on inspiring kids to pursue stem degrees. I want young people to know that where their journey started doesn’t define where it ends, they do. That they can be anything they want to be even if there’s no one like them in that position today. It’s so important for young kids to be able to pursue their different interests and really try things out so that they can start to realize who they are meant to be in life.
My real passion is teaching children about the excitement that science brings to life and showing them that science doesn’t end when the school day ends and it’s not just what you do in the classroom or in the lab but it’s what you do every single day just by being.
What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?
It’s ironic but for me, I would say that my biggest achievement and my biggest failure is probably the same thing.
I started out my career really loving tech and being on the ground working with it as a Start-Up Engineer and then in my mid-20’s I had a supervisor drop a “30 under 30” article on my desk and tell me that I should be on that list. By that point in my career, I had already been told by a number of female mentors that as a woman engineering I had to climb fast and hard because my male counterparts would see my womb as an expiry date so having this be the bar just seemed like a good fit.
Thus I started sprinting towards the goal of getting on the executive board before 30 and at 28 was placed as a Market Director in charge of launching a new division and reporting into our CEO. As I looked around at my life and the lives of my peers though I realized how much I really missed the technology. I was getting to interface with customers in their designs but I wasn’t actually hands on anymore and it was something that really bothered me. Add to that the fact that I was traveling 70% of the time and no longer able to do outreach or spend time with family and friends and it dawned on me how far from my own dreams I had wandered. I realized that at some point I had started living someone else’s dream.
I think that one thing that for me was a big failure in my career was letting go of my own dream – while I am still proud of all that I accomplished I wish that I had dedicated my time and career to the path that would have enabled me to spend more time in outreach and hands-on with technology. While I may not have made as much money or climbed as high, I would have gotten to where I wanted to be while enjoying the journey instead of surviving it.
One of the messages I have for kids today is that you’ve got more options than we ever dreamed of having. The world is getting smaller and smaller making more goals attainable but make sure to reach for what you want in life. It’s okay to turn down an opportunity, even if it’s a lucrative one if it doesn’t fit who you are or who you want to be. It’s not just the type or size of the opportunity but the timing as well.
What is a typical day like for you?
Currently, a typical Day for me is very varied – it depends on what projects I’m working on and where I am in the country. This year, I have been spending 1-2 weeks out of every month traveling and doing outreach across the nation with different non-profits and schools including things like science demos, STEM talks, Q&A Sessions with students, etc. The other two weeks of the month are normally spent doing Engineering Consulting work or being set either as a Science Communicator, SAG Actor, or Wardrobe Designer depending on the project. So I guess in a way my days are not very typical but I love the variability. After all, it’s about the journey, not the destination and I am able to chase my passion in whatever direction it takes me that day.
What are the hardest parts related to your work?
I would say that one of the hardest parts of this work is choosing just one thing to pursue. I have always enjoyed learning about new things and discovering what the world has to offer so selecting a single route has been very hard but that’s why I love my degree program – it enables me the versatility to try a lot of different things and work project to project in so many industries.
Engineering is one of those fields that while it requires hard work and long hours it really enables you to explore the world, figure out how things work, and tinker with technology. If you’re someone that has a lot of questions and wants to always be learning than it’s the perfect place to be because imagination and discovery are everything in science.
Another difficult part of today’s world in science is all the misinformation that exists. Like it or not we live in a time of alternative facts which means that you often have to wade through a lot of false statements to get to the right one and if you’re not careful you can draw inaccurate conclusions based on irrelevant data. That’s why critical thinking is so vital today and fact checking from multiple reputable sources. In the age of the internet, sadly people can find “proof” of any claim which is why it’s important to cross reference and check all data and sources. Sometimes it can be hard to find the truth and if you’re not willing to really fight for it then you can be led astray and your work and reputation could suffer.
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
It’s interesting, I’ve never doubted my abilities as a scientist. I’m humble in the fact that I’m not the smartest person in most rooms – in fact, that’s a goal of mine since I enjoy learning from others – but I always seek answers and ask a lot of questions.
That being said, there have been moments in my career where I’ve doubted my ability to stay within companies as a scientist. Like it or not the world of science especially in the traditional chemical is still dominated by the old regime which means that as a woman engineer I am often a minority in my field. There’s only so long in your career that you can bang your head against the glass ceiling before you begin to doubt if you will ever break through. Like most women in Science, I have way too many examples of times where I was going above and beyond the male counterparts around me but not advancing at all while they fly up the ranks. It becomes really hard to continuously give yourself the pep-talk to stick it out because the bias is there whether it’s unconscious or well seen, bias is alive and well in engineering.
As female scientists, we often have to build the environments that we will excel in because they aren’t always existing when we walk into a company. That doesn’t mean they can’t be built – it just means you’ll dedicate more work to being accepted and respected as a scientist than you’ll get to apply to your day to day work. This is something that I keep working towards fixing because I’m hoping one day that advancement will solely occur because of work and merit and that gender and race will no longer be a factor that is considered. At the end of the day if we can get equality for all then everyone wins.
What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?
I was blessed to be raised by two women (my Mother and Godmother) that had to hold their own in the Marine Corp in the 80’s. Their strength and their ability to stand up for what was right, regardless if it was easy or hard, is something that I wanted to be able to emulate in life.
They taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be in the world. They never said that it would be easy or that I would get help along the way – in fact, they warned that often times I would work twice as hard as my male counterparts to get half as much – but they gifted me with the belief that hard work would eventually pay off.
Their unwillingness to give up and their strength in pursuing what they wanted in life, regardless if it was a career path for women or not, is what gives me the strength to keep pushing and lift others who are doing the same. Whenever I hit a hard moment I think of how much more they had to overcome and it reminds me that little movements matter when it comes to changing the world for the better.
In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?
In 10 years, I’m hoping that young women that are graduating are going to walk into S.T.E.M. fields and no longer be a minority but instead represent 50% of the field like they represent 50% of the nation. I hope that they’re going to be walking into companies that aren’t going to see them as “women” engineers but as engineers in their respective disciplines. I’m hoping that the diversity of the field (both in life and in media) will help reflect the diversity of our population so that young kids can find role models that look like them no matter what field they are hoping to pursue in life. I’m hopeful that men and women will both be given equal benefits so they can spend time with their newborn children without forfeiting their work advancement or pay. Until that day comes, I’m hoping that I can continuing meeting and working with men and women who are fighting for Gender Equality so that one day it is no longer a buzzword but a normality.
Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention? Which one?
I think that there should be more attention being paid to concussions in sports – not just at the pro league level but also at the youth level. There is so much science coming out about the long-term detriment that repetitive hits can have on an athlete but it’s getting very little attention and the findings aren’t being extrapolated to other similar sports that could have this risk without anyone even noticing yet. For instance, people focus heavily on a line backer being hit in a football game but not on a soccer player that goes for a header and collides with an opponent. There is a lot of risk in life and sports but some of it can be helped by awareness and technology development. I just wish that more was being done to protect athletes at all levels.
During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?
I’m a big believer in mentorship programs but sadly didn’t learn about them until I was in my career so I try to talk to students about them earlier on so that they can gain the benefit of knowledge that mentors can bring. I have found benefit in having peer mentors as well as step-level mentors in my organizations. I’ve also found being a mentor myself to be very rewarding because it has enabled me to pass along a lot of the great mentorship advice I’ve gotten through the years.
Anytime I’m going into a new field especially I seek out a new mentor so that I can learn more than what I may potentially learn day to day. There’s so much information and knowledge available and we often don’t know what we don’t know which is where the benefit of a mentor can truly come into play.
I try to pass along to students that if they don’t have a mentor yet they should go and seek one out, even if it’s just to have a coffee once a month because there’s a lot of power in information and there’s only so much that we can acquire alone in the world. Sometimes having someone that’s walked a similar path or knows what the next potential step could make the difference you couldn’t make for your career.
If you were completely free to choose a scientific topic to work on, which would it be?
I have always loved epidemiology – I’m not sure if it’s because of all the time I spent in labs with my mom or the time I spent working with vaccines but it is something that I hold very near and dear to my heart.
I often think that if I had been able to afford to go to school for a Ph.D./MD that is where I would be spending my time because the way viruses develop and thrive is amazing.
For now, I get to share my experience working with Virus through non-profit work with a great group called Project United which is helping raise awareness and education about biocontainment and emerging 😊
What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?
During my first internship, I was gifted with a position that enabled me to truly work, versus pushing papers like a large number of internships. During my summer with the company, I worked with an incredible team of R&D Scientists and helped them to discover a patentable technology for plastics additives that is still utilized today. It was an honor to get to not only help to make the discovery but to file for the patent on behalf of the company and the team. I still have the silver dollar the company gave each of us when the patent was issued 😊
Do you come from an academic family?
I come from a traditional military family so most of my family members don’t have 4-year degrees. Those that have college degrees went a non-traditional route to school by joining the military and then utilizing their G.I. Bill to get a technical trade degree. I think that that’s something that’s really enriched who I am because watching my parents work hard each day for what they wanted and not give up on their goals even if it meant long hours and working multiple jobs made me realize the value of hard work and an education. The members of my family make me proud because they never gave up on their want to pursue education even though they couldn’t take the traditional path and they really showcased to me the value of a degree.
How does your family regard your career choice?
I don’t think I’ve ever really asked my family that question. I think my family has always supported me and that they love me no matter what so it’s never been a question of what I decided to be in life.
There have been stages where I feel they’ve been more able to interact with what I am doing. For instance, when I was in vaccines my mom was excited because as a microbiologist she could talk with me about the virus seed bank and vaccines that we were developing to keep people safe against the annual flu because she was interfacing with it on the front lines.
As for my dad, I think he just loves the fact that I still love to play with tools because since I was little he has always pushed me to tinker with the things around me and build new things. I could utilize a lot of what he taught me growing up when I was actively doing plant designs and builds which made him proud but caused the construction team to hate when I was the one auditing them 😊
Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?
My personal interest all revolve around being able to reconnect with the world around me and get off the grid. I love being at one with nature and getting to immerse myself in new cultures and environments so traveling has always been a large passion. To enhance my exploration, I have become an avid hiker, backpacker, rock climber, scuba diver, and photographer. I’m always up for trying new things – new foods, new sports, new areas – so I am just a student of life and the world 😊
As I’ve noted before a large part of my life is outreach so anytime I can combine my travel and exploration of cultures with giving back to new communities that’s a plus.
Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?
A question that I get asked a lot by young women interested in STEM is how to balance private life and career – especially being married to an engineer.
The truth is this is different for everyone. As a single engineer, I was not good at balancing life and career. My life was my career – in some ways it continued to be even in the relationship that developed into my marriage. However, I was blessed to marry my best friend who balances me by pushing me to have a work life balance and remember to enjoy the journey.
The reason we’ve gotten to where we are in both our careers is that we continue to have a conversation around where we want our careers and our personal life to go next and long term. Every time we’ve been offered a new job or a new opportunity in life we have taken the time to talk more in depth and make sure that it aligns with where we hope to go.
That being said – once we married I remember the work life balance being a heavy weight on my shoulders. I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the societal view of what a wife should be while I was also feeling the weight of being a Market Director and launching a new division. The men around launching divisions in other markets would joke about “happy wife happy life” talking about the women who were back home making dinner, caring for children, and taking care of the day to day life items and I remember thinking – man I wish I had a wife. See at the end of the day when we were all working long hours, their wives were picking up the slack at home but my husband was working just as hard at his engineering company. The house fell into disarray, we ate out more often than in — I was thriving as an engineer but failing as a wife. Worse yet – I wasn’t sharing my feelings and issues with my husband which eliminated his ability to help.
In time I realized I thrived as an engineer because I had a team that I could lean on and that in neglecting to talk to my husband I was eliminating the ability to thrive at home. Once we talked we realized that we both could do a little and it would make a huge difference. We started to divide the household chores and in time had a home again where we ate meals and talked about our thriving careers.
See the truth is that as a Female in STEM you do have to make choices and sacrifices. You will work long hours, put off families for the career, miss some important moments but your career will be rewarding and if you are selective in who you marry your life will be full. However, to be a Woman in STEM you will need to be more selective and more up front about your wants in life when dating. You don’t want to get on the other side of a wedding to find that your new partner doesn’t want a career woman as a wife. Instead, you need to be able to find someone who is affirmed enough in their own intelligence and career that they won’t be threatened by your success but instead will celebrate it. You will need someone that can put ego aside and realize that it’s not about what’s best for him or what’s best for you but what is best overall for your family and the future that you are building.
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
If I could give advice to my younger self it would be to leap and trust that things will fall as they should. So many times I delayed a career move because of my fear of failure and I think that had I been braver I would have gone further faster.
I would also tell myself that that moving on is not a failure – there are many times I’ve remained in situations that were not beneficial for my career or life just because I was afraid to upset my bosses by walking away. In the long run, every time I stayed longer than I wanted to I found it was a mistake and a delay to my happiness in my career and my life.
What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?
I grew up as one of the only redheads in my hometown so the role of being an outsider is one that I took early in life due to bullying. Maybe it was because I had so many people telling me what I’d never be that my parents so vehemently told me I could be anything I wanted to be or perhaps it was just to prove everyone else wrong that I fought so hard to prove my parents right.
The funny thing is that recently my mom said to me “When I told you that you could be anything in life, I didn’t realize you wanted to be a boy”. In today’s society, that may seem like a loaded statement but what she recognized is that I had been fighting since I was young to be one of few (if not the first) women in male-dominated fields. I think perhaps it was because I had strong women as role models that I never thought twice about applying because I didn’t think that my gender should be an obstacle.
When I had applied to the U.S. Air Force Academy I did so with four of five appointments (Presidential, Vice Presidential, Senatorial, and Congressional) – all from males with the one I didn’t receive being from Elizabeth Dole who was known for her stance against women in Military Academies.
Later in college, I was approached about an Officer’s job in the Nuclear Navy. I was excited because while women still weren’t allowed on Sub’s they were recently allowed to Manage the Nuclear Fleet versus the old standing of only being allowed to teach in the Nuclear Navy School. I remember going through the interview process as the only female candidate and being asked by every interviewer why I wasn’t going to be an instructor. When I talked with the male candidates not one of them had been asked the same question.
I remember when I was at my first company I was in a meeting for our Global Technical Leadership Program where a company lead told us that he understood the battle we as women would face in our careers – that if we stood strong to our beliefs we would be viewed as non-team players and if we were quick to agree we would be walked all over. He told us it would be difficult but it would be do-able if we just didn’t give up. That same company was later sued for suppressing women advancement in the ranks and as an afterthought put together a Women in Leadership program though they had no female leaders to head it and instead brought in outside consultants who knew little of the issues within the company.
My second company had a good balance of women engineers in the lower levels but they had issues just the same. I found out a few months into my time with them that they didn’t cover contraception and had only recently begun covering physical exams for their female employees. While it was a southern based company I was surprised to hear from HR that they felt that women should be able to advance in their company when their benefits spoke a very different message.
I wish I could say that this has changed in the last decade but even in my last position during my hiring process I was floored when the founder noted “We hired a woman once, she got married and had a baby then left. Are you going to do that?”. Perhaps I should have seen the writing on the wall for women in that company then but I was hopeful that I could spark a change.
These are but a single story from each of these companies that I spent a good deal of time with and could go on for days talking about the issues that were seen and the moments of gender inequality. I wish that I could say that now that I am in Science Communication this has changed but anyone that is familiar with the field knows that there is yet to be a case of a woman on a network television show as a lead host for a Science based show. It is my hope that this will be changed and these are but a few of the reasons that I fight to try to ensure that this won’t be the reality for my young nieces who love Science and should never have to question if they can make it in a “man’s field”.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?
I think the scientific system itself is attractive to women and I think that young girls now are very excited about science.
I think the thing that needs an overall overhaul is the pay scale and benefits that are offered both to men and to women in these fields. For instance, very few companies in America offer paid paternity leave. While many people would ask what this has to do with women I believe strongly that it directly shows a company’s support for the advancement of women. Paternity leave means that a father can be home with their new born child and thus enable the mother to go back to work sooner. An additional benefit that would be helpful is disconnecting the FMLA program of spouses – so many engineers that marry engineers work for the same firm which makes it impossible for the husband to take FMLA and be home in cases where paternity leave isn’t offered because it then subtracts from the wives FMLA. Furthermore, if a woman is not given the same wage rate as her male counterpart that removes the ability for the husband to exercise his right to stay at home versus work because the family wage would take a higher hit than if the mother were to stay at home even if in the same job.
If companies don’t start to enable women and men to have an equal footing with regards to wages and benefits we basically prevent people from achieving the goal of putting more women in their companies. As stated before, I have within the last five years worked for a company that had just within the past decade started allowing women to get annual physical exams yet still don’t enable them to choose their career over a family after marriage through birth control.
As a company, if you are telling women you want to see them advance within your organization but you aren’t enabling them to get proper health care or to make the choice to delay child birth, and you don’t offer their husbands paternity leave to help with childcare or a daycare system then perhaps you should really reconsider how you are supporting your claims. Make sure that your benefits packages and wage structures are supporting both men and women in your organization because that is the only way more women will begin to advance.
Do you have anything else that you’d like to tell us about?
To showcase the balance of being a women and an engineer I thought it was worth sharing that I just did this full interview via voice capture while baking muffins. Lol.
You can follow and contact Tamara via Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook: @TLYNNR85!