Our scientists and engineers share their stories.
Growing up, William Garnes liked science, but he never considered it as a career path. Now, he’s a geologist for Battelle Carbon Services—a career he says he fell into “by accident” after signing up for Geology 101 as a junior at Ball State University.
His experiences—and those of many other Battelle employees—point to the importance of exposure to a variety of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers. Garnes explains, “When I heard science, I pictured a guy in a white coat in a laboratory—I thought the only options were professor or a mad scientist caricature cooped up in a lab. I didn’t realize there were so many different career routes and opportunities.” Far from being cooped up, his work has taken him from the oil rigs of West Texas to the Badlands of South Dakota to map the subsurface. He now applies his MS in Geology to identify the carbon capture potential in geologic formations.
The reality is there are thousands of career pathways to follow in STEM fields, whether you want to get out in the field as an ecologist or work behind a desk as a computer modeler. For many people in STEM vocations, early curiosity bolstered by encouragement, exposure and the freedom to experiment has been the ticket to finding their lifelong passion. Sometimes, that exploration has led people in directions they didn’t expect.
What does all this mean for Battelle, and for others with a vested interest in getting more people into the STEM pipeline? First, exposure matters—how do you know if you are interested in a career if you don’t know it exists? Garnes would love to see more scientists and engineers in K-12 classrooms talking about what they do. “Not every kid will become a scientist, but it broadens the mindset,” he says. “You have to talk about how you are using science in your job and show them what you actually do and the places you get to go because of your job.”
Tabitha Teo, a mechanical engineer for Battelle’s Medical Device group, concurs: “Exposure to real-life STEM applications is important. Seeing the end product of engineering work and realizing that you can be a part of it is crucial.” But it is also vitally important to give young people and early-career scientists the flexibility to explore a variety of career options before settling into a vocation. Teo switched from aerospace engineering to medical devices as a result of her undergraduate experiences, ultimately completing her master’s thesis in glaucoma drainage implants. She explained, “There wasn’t a single turning point for me, but I wanted to work in a field that felt more tangible to me and helped people.” She is now doing exactly that.
Early childhood experiences can have a big impact. KT Vandergriff (who uses she/they pronouns) points to their father, a computer science professor at The Ohio State University, as inspiration. Vandergriff followed in their father’s footsteps in computer science and is now a modeler on the Battelle CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive) team. “Growing up, it was really great to be able to ask him questions about anything I was curious about, and he could give me an age-appropriate answer. Later on, when I was in college, I could say, ‘oh, I remember that!’” she says.
Vivian Smith, a principal research scientist for Battelle National Security, knew she was interested in science and medicine from a very early age. As a preschooler, she loved using her play doctor’s kit to “cure” her little brother when he was hurt or sick. A 5th-grade science teacher who turned her classroom into a “STEM wonderland” full of hands-on activities further nurtured her interest. Smith initially thought she wanted to go to med school. Dr. Leroy Johnson, an undergraduate professor at Alcorn State University, encouraged her to really think about why she wanted to go to med school and explore other options. “He put me in touch with doctors who were doing things I was interested in. They helped me see that I was really interested in research, not medicine,” she says. An internship with Cornell later solidified her interest in bio- and agro-defense. She now works on the CBRNE team in support of the United States Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
Santiago Bonarrigo is another Battelle engineer who changed his focus as an undergraduate. His high school in Argentina focused on business and bookkeeping, but he always loved taking things apart to see how they worked. His curiosity led him to explore mechanical and aerospace engineering as an undergraduate. In his 4th year, a class in computer science—in which he used Fortran IV to design wing structures and landing gear—piqued his interest. “Professor Zimmerman really had an impact on me,” he says. “He really loved computers, and the way he explained things and taught his classes was great. That was my path to computers.” Bonarrigo ultimately graduated with a six-year degree in electronics but continued to explore computer science. For the last 10 years, he has worked for the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) program as a senior software engineer.
To broaden the career pipeline for the next generation of STEM talent, it is important to ensure that all students have opportunities to be exposed to a variety of STEM concepts and career options from a young age. Smith says, “Keep it fun, not overwhelming. STEM learning should ignite curiosity which will make learning a new concept easier to grasp.” For high school students and undergraduates, job shadowing and internship experiences can be transformational. Students need the freedom to explore all their options, change their minds, and find their passion.
That’s why organizations such as Battelle have an imperative to support STEM education at all levels, from early childhood programs to internship opportunities for early career scientists. Battelle is proud to have reached its goal of impacting more than one million children with high-quality STEM education programming three years ahead of schedule—and they’re just getting started.