Women @ Energy: Jessica Metcalfe

Jessica Metcalfe enlarge

Jessica earned a master's degree at the University of California, Santa Cruz and a Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico. She is currently a post-doc at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory. Photo credit: Michael Hoch.

The following profile was published by the Department of Energy's Office of Economic Impact and Diversity for the Women @ Energy series, which showcases women who are helping change the world, ensuring America’s security and prosperity through transformative science and technology solutions. Meet the other scientists profiled in the Women @ Energy series here.

Dr. Jessica Metcalfe grew up in Springfield, Oregon. She did her undergraduate studies in math and physics at the University of Oregon, where she first started working in a high energy physics laboratory. Jessica earned a master's degree at the University of California, Santa Cruz and a Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico. She is currently a post-doc at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory. For ten years, she has worked on the ATLAS Experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Europe. Jessica helped build parts of the original detector and is now involved in detector research and development for the next generation of detectors. She also analyzes physics of the Standard Model—the theory that identifies all known fundamental particles and explains how they interact. She was on the team that made the first measurement of Electroweak Vector Boson Scattering—a process involving the recently discovered Higgs boson—and will continue the search for new physics.

1) What inspired you to work in STEM?

I've loved puzzles and playing with numbers ever since I was a young kid. Every time I learned how something new worked, I was fascinated. As I would lie in bed waiting for sleep, I would think about things like, "How big is the universe?" or, "How does a TV project an image?" Then I would call my parents to come discuss the answer, trying to stump them on something they didn't know. By the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted to do science to try to find new answers.

2) What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?

I get to “play” with the coolest “toys” while pushing to understand the most basic laws of physics that help us understand how the universe works. I get to come up with new ideas on how to design new machines to detect particles. The ATLAS Detector at the LHC is an amazing monument to human accomplishment, with people from 38 countries collectively pushing the boundary of what is possible. The LHC smashes protons at nearly the speed of light to create lots of new particles, and I get to sift through the data to look for signs of new kinds of physics that have never been seen before.

3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?

The roots of gender and racial bias run deep. While a lot of progress has been made in the last few decades, we still have a long way to go until all people—including women and people of color—are perceived as equals, and until that happens, we need to continue the conversation of gender and race.

As individuals—men and women alike—we can challenge ourselves to stop and think about what assumptions we make about a person based on how they look. As teachers, we can ask, "What encouragement do I give to my students? What language do I use? Is it different for different groups of students?" We can learn to speak about math and science as something fun, not scary. As a professional in a STEM field, I have the opportunity to mentor students. There are plenty of talented young women and people of color from a diverse range of backgrounds who deserve the opportunity for a STEM professional to see their potential and invest time to support their growth and success, and I want to be a part of that movement.

As a country, we can provide a more equal footing in the public education system by investing in schools, teachers, and equipment, so that all children—regardless of gender, color, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background—have safe and respectable buildings with spaces to learn, personal time with their teachers, and the equipment to gain the necessary skills to succeed in the work force or higher education. I think it's vital to continue to support and grow educational programs that foster interest in STEM fields aimed at all types of underrepresented groups from an early age all the way up through high school. These kinds of actions will help erode the institutional privilege that has repressed the growth of women and people of color in STEM fields.

4) Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?

It is extremely important to have mentors who guide you and support you as you build your career. Take the initiative to contact someone in the field you are interested in and ask for a tour of their lab, a chance to meet with them, or their suggestions on reading material. A strong support network can also include friends and family to encourage you when times get rough. Generally, let your passion show, ask questions, take initiative, and believe in yourself.

5) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?

I love to swim. I was a swimmer growing up and I still do it. I recently did a 2.4-kilometer open water race. I also like to compete in triathlons. I enjoy cooking for my friends, traveling, camping, hiking, reading, gardening, and painting when I get the chance.

2014-5270  |  INT/EXT  |  Newsroom