Superman isnít the only one these days with x-ray vision. Through spectroscopy, scientists are able to utilize all forms of light waves from the electromagnetic spectrum to study the world around us.
The electromagnetic spectrum contains seven forms of light, only one of which we can see with our eyes Ė visible light. When the others Ė gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet, infrared, microwaves and radio waves, are used to examine matter, the possibilities are endless. Spectroscopy can be used in hospitals to diagnose everything from broken bones to cancer. It is used by astronomers to study the origins of the universe, the possibility of life on other planets, and to look at what is happening on our own planet through the use of satellites.
Governments also use spectroscopy for national defense and security. This is where my job comes in. I work as a manager at Sandia National Laboratories. The team of scientists I manage is made up of analytical chemists who use spectroscopy in their work. Our research is then used by applied scientists to create methods to detect infection by biological weapons on a cell by cell basis, develop ways to sense the presence of chemical weapons in foreign countries, and monitor the aging and storage of nuclear weapons. This collaboration with applied chemists has shown me that science is truly based on teamwork. Analytical scientists provide building blocks for applied scientists to put into action.
It is this connection between research and its applications that interests me. Because Sandia is a national laboratory, the President and Congress have the power to decide the focus of our research and how much money we have. Therefore, the applications of our research depend on politics and science policy and the government has a tremendous amount of power in deciding the applications of scientific research.
Having a good understanding of the political process makes it easier for me to grasp these connections between politics and science. As a teenager, I was always interested in politics and I even worked in a senatorís office for several months. In fact, I never imagined that I would become a chemist. When I first went to college at George Washington University in Washington D.C., I majored in political science! Chemistry was a requirement for my general education and to my surprise and shock, I found out I was good at it. When I decided to switch my major to chemistry I had to take a pre-calculus class, which I found to be extremely difficult. I got so scared by the challenge that I dropped out of college for a few months. When I did go back to school I had to take that pre-calculus class again. However, I had more confidence in myself and passed it easily and went on to take many more math classes.† Eventually I went to graduate school at University of Texas, Austin where I earned my Ph.D. in 1990.
I learned to love research during graduate school. I found that science is like a puzzle and you can often be surprised by the result. You might think you know what the answer is and you test it, but sometimes nature comes up with a completely different outcome. I like being able to ask questions and to figure out problems that arenít visible to the human eye.
The combination of scientific research and politics has made my career at Sandia very rewarding. Observing the balancing act between research and application is exciting, knowing that the safety of our country is the outcome.