Erica Redline is a career scientist and engineer with a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota, as well as an independent crochet instructor.
Welcome to "Science Champions." I'm your host, Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M.
So here's a fun experiment. Go to your favorite stock photo site and search for the term "scientist." You will likely see hundreds of pictures of people in lab coats working in gleaming white labs. Most are looking through microscopes, but some are combining beakers of brightly colored fluid. Most people do know there has to be more designs than that. How does mixing the green liquid with the red liquid lead to new pharmaceuticals, or faster microchips, or better adhesives? But the stereotypes remain.
We need the best and brightest young minds to consider pursuing a career in science. To achieve that goal, we need to educate the public on science-based career opportunities and what scientists actually do. The truth is there are hundreds of different opportunities and career paths in STEM fields. Some scientists scuba dive to find new life on the ocean floor. Some program robots to walk, talk, or play ping pong. And others are working to make cars fly. Some like myself, who are in research and development, find new ways to combine materials, apply signs and create products that advance companies, enhance homes, and improve lives.
On this episode, my guest is Erica Redline, a research and development scientist who works at Sandia National Labs in New Mexico. Welcome, Erica.
Erica Redline: Thanks for having me.
JS: So tell us what you do.
ER: Sure. I'm actually a polymer scientist at Sandia National Labs, and polymer scientist is basically a fancy way of saying that I work with plastics. My primary job responsibility is looking at how these materials age and degrade in their environments. So at Sandia, we're actually a national security lab, so everything we do has some type of tie into national security. For instance, a lot of my work actually focuses on energy security. So I look at things like polymer O-rings that protect really sensitive monitoring equipment that goes down into geothermal wells. So if they fail prematurely, you can actually shut down the well production or also damage thousands of dollars' worth of equipment, which is never a good thing.
JS: And how long have you been at Sandia?
ER: About four and a half years now?
JS: What kind of work does Sandia Labs do? Can you talk about some of the projects they're most proud of?
ER: I can't speak for Sandia in terms of everything that they do, but as a national security lab, we do work on nuclear deterrence. We work on cybersecurity, anything really of national importance. Like I said, I do energy security. Those kind of things are our mission space. I work a lot with renewable energy. I work a lot with the geothermal group, the O-ring aging things. I also work a lot with nuclear power plants. So a lot of our power plants are aging, and they are trying to come up with renewals for another 20, 40, 60 years. And one of the questions is how long is the polymer sheathing on the cables going to last? So we expose that to different environments, we try to actually accelerate the aging of those materials. In the best case, we could actually get something from a power plant and assess how the chemistry has changed or how the physical properties have changed like has it gotten stiffer? Is it going to crack off and expose those cables? Things like that. So those are the types of things that we work with there.
JS: What is it like working there?
ER: It's a lot of fun. There's definitely…you'd know what the application space is, usually what you're working on, and so you can see the significance and the importance of the types of things that you're doing towards, you know, not just yourself, but the rest of the country as a whole. And it feels really good to know that the work that we do here helps keep this country safe.
JS: Let's talk about how you got to where you are, what sparked your interest in science?
ER: I come from a really small town in Pennsylvania, and most of the people that I knew there that had advanced degrees were doctors or teachers. And so for the longest time, I thought I wanted to be a surgeon. And that was kind of my plan all throughout school. I'm gonna be a surgeon, I wanna help people and I was always just inquisitive by nature. And then I had this really awesome experience. I think it was the summer before my senior year of high school where I went to this program, it was the Governor's School of Excellence for students in Pennsylvania. The focus was on healthcare. And I don't even remember the doctor's name, but he had said to us, you know, "You don't know what you don't know. So you should always keep an open mind about things." And that really had a profound impact on me.
So I went, you know, I went to Penn State for undergrad and I realized I should just try things. There's probably different majors that I don't even know about. And basically, because of that, I got into science. I decided I didn't like biology pre-med anymore and I really liked chemistry, especially organic chemistry, and just happened to have a friend who actually lived directly below me in the dorm. She was a material scientist, which I had never heard of before in my life, and I took a class and I just fell in love with it. I've always loved figuring out why things do the things that they do. And, you know, digging deep and trying to answer questions that are real world problems.
JS: Okay, so now, let's talk about your day-to-day job as a scientist. Can you describe your average day at the National Lab?
ER: Sure. So I really have the most fun doing experiments and being in the lab. So I usually try to spend as much time as possible as I can in there. Those are the days that go by really fast. But we also have to work on, you know, writing proposals, getting funding for interesting ideas that we have. I spend time in my office planning these experiments so that I, you know, they make sense. When you do the experiments, you know, you collect a lot of data so you have to figure out what that data is telling you and find an appropriate way to share that data with other people. So often that is in the form of a report, a lot of times you do oral presentations or poster presentations, so, just, you know, finding ways to convey those results to a specific audience.
JS: What do you think are some of the best things about a career in science?
ER: Science is just fun. I mean, if you're the type of person who is always asking why, or how, or what, you know, just going in and collecting new data and figuring out, you know, why your experiment didn't work. Because most of the time, they don't work. You know, just troubleshooting. It's just active learning is amazing. I feel like if you don't learn something new every day, then you're doing something wrong, especially in this field. And I learn from my peers, and I also learn things from people much younger than me, too. So it's not just, you know, learning from experts. And I think, you know, science has a huge impact on our lives, right? I mean, we've got cell phones now, super fast computers, even just air travel, and just every single aspect of your life is touched by science in some way, whether you think it is or not, and it's just amazing to be part of that, to be making a difference and making advancements in technology in this world.
JS: What do you think are the most crucial skills for someone seeking a career in science?
ER: Now, certainly, if you have an interest at all in any of the STEM fields. And I know there's a really common misconception that, you know, you're inherently good at these things or you're not, which is actually not true. They're all skills that you can learn. If, you know, you find a subject that you really like, that just keeps you wanting to learn more about it, that keeps you being inquisitive, I think that's a really important skill is just to question, to not be afraid to ask questions and constantly be asking questions. I think maybe we're kind of annoying as scientists because we're like a two-year-old. Why, why, why, why?
I also think you need to have persistence. Like I said earlier, nothing usually goes as planned in the lab. You can have the most perfect experimental setup and, you know, perhaps it just doesn't go right and you don't just give up, right? Like I think Thomas Edison said, "I have not failed, I found 10,000 ways that won't work." So you have to have that persistence to just keep digging deeper until you find the data that you need that can fix your problem.
I also think, as a scientist, you cannot be afraid to be wrong and you can't be afraid to change your mind. So, for instance, I could go into a problem and have a certain hypothesis and I collect all this data and it completely disproves what I originally thought. You know, we'll go back and we'll double, triple check that, right, just to make sure because it's going against what we thought. But you can't be afraid that if you have evidence that is contrary to what you believe in the first place to change your mind. So that's a very critical skill.
And I also think you have to be a really good communicator. You can be a brilliant scientist, but if you cannot find a way to share that results with an audience, then you'll fail because you do have to be able to communicate that.
JS: Oh, definitely. So we talk a lot about the importance of women in STEM on our podcasts. Is there a female scientist you particularly admire?
ER: I'm so excited that you asked that and brought this up because that's like one of my passions is STEM outreach and getting women and minorities interested in science. Yeah, so one of my heroes actually was Stephanie Kwolek. She was a scientist at DuPont where I actually worked for two years before I came to Sandia. So she was one of the inventors of Kevlar and as a polymer scientists, I kind of idolized her and I really, really wish I could have had just, you know, a sit down and talked to her at some point before she passed away. But, you know, it's amazing to me that, you know, she came up with this material and it's so widely used now, and it keeps a lot of people safe. So she's definitely someone I really, really admire.
Yeah, I mean, I was totally stoked to go to DuPont because I was like, "Oh, man, Stephanie Kwolek worked here, and then maybe we'll have her back at some point and I can talk to her." So I was totally fangirling, but I never got the chance to meet her. I did actually…my neighbor, when I lived in Delaware, [inaudible 00:10:53] Brazil. She actually worked on Kalrez O-ring. She's one of the original developers of that, and I think she was in her 80s, when I was there. I can't remember off the top of my head, but it was great to talk to her too because I was working on those O-rings and those are the type of things that are, you know, the high temperature materials that they're using to protect electronics down holes. So that was just really neat, that I happen to be living next to a former DuPonter who actually, you know, she's on the original patent, I think, for Kalrez, so that was really cool.
JS: Absolutely. Thanks for joining me. Erica.
ER: Thank you so much for having me, and it was really an honor to be selected for this podcast.
JS: What does a career in science look like? At its best, it looks like finding something that sparks your interest, that makes you curious, and using the scientific method to learn more, and like in my case, apply it to develop product solutions. Whether it's climate science or DNA, penguins or polymers, science helps all of us explore and understand the world around us and solve problems. A science-based career, it's fascinating work. And I, for one, couldn't ask for a more rewarding career.
Thank you for listening to Science Champions. For more in-depth analysis of the current state of science, join us at 3m.com/scienceindex. And make sure to subscribe to the podcast to catch our next episode! You can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.