The score is tied. There are thirty seconds left in the game. Above the roaring crowd, I can barely hear the pounding of the basketball as it ricochets like lightening around the court. Time is running out! Fifteen seconds... My teammate swiftly passes me the ball. I gulp and take a long shot. There is a breathtaking moment of silence as the ball leaves my hands and soars through the air. I stand, my arms still raised, and then there is the unmistakable sound of the ball hitting the rim and swishing through the net.
The split second when a basketball hits the net is the most crucial moment in a game. That contact is what interests me both as a basketball player and a chemist. For the most part, the basketball wanders around the court. It is when the shot goes up that all the “exciting chemistry” can occur. In my twelve years as a research scientist for the Department of Energy (DOE) at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) I studied the moments when the “shot goes up,” when chemicals come in contact with surfaces like rock or water. This is called surface chemistry.
In particular, I look at what happens when pollutants that come from uranium and plutonium come into contact with different surfaces. From the mid-1940s until the end of the1980s, the DOE used a lot of uranium and plutonium for weapons production. Waste resulted, and in the end it was improperly stored in the ground in barrels, which eventually corroded. What I study is how these waste metals interact with the environment, mostly at the surface. For example, what happens to rocks when they come in contact with contaminants? Do the contaminates stick to the rock? Are they changed by the chemistry of the rock, or is there no attraction? Our research tries to understand all of those processes so that better clean-up strategies can be developed.
I never imagined I would end up with a Ph.D. in chemistry. I used to think a woman could only grow up to be a secretary or a bank teller! I was born in 1962 and raised in the small town of Kingman, Arizona. Kingman has a large mix of Hispanics, Native Americans and Anglos, and I am a mix myself; my mother is Navajo and my father is Caucasian. Although I was fortunate to have friends from many different backgrounds, there were not many role models for me as a girl because I didn’t see a lot of women professionals in Kingman.
However, both my parents were teachers so they emphasized the importance of education and were very encouraging. While I put effort into my studies, I was also very involved in athletics. After high school I went to Yavapai Community College in Prescott, Arizona where I played basketball and had the first teacher who taught me to love chemistry. I then transferred to New Mexico State University to finish my bachelor’s degree and I received my Ph.D. from the University of Arizona in 1990.
It is truly a stereotype that girls are not good at science and sports, since those are two of the things in life that I love the most. But the things you love are not always easy. I never backed off, whether it was in the classroom or going out for a team. Sometimes the most difficult things are the most rewarding, and I have always found that one of the most satisfying things in life is to be able to step back with a mixture of surprise and accomplishment and say, “SLAM DUNK!”