Growing up in northern Virginia, Heather Baxter always thought she wanted to be a physician. Along the way, her education and career path took several turns: from pre-med to teaching high school science, to working as a chemist in a nuclear power plant. We sat down with Heather to learn more about her career path and her advice for high school students interested in pursuing a career in science.
Q. Were you interested in science at an early age?
I have always loved science but hated high school chemistry. As a college freshmen pre-med major I had to take introductory courses on chemistry and physics. I loved both of my college chemistry and physics classes. My love for chemistry and physics grew as I took more advanced physical chemistry classes. I then decided to change my major from pre-med to chemistry and physics.
Q. You have a master’s degree in nuclear radiochemistry. How did you get interested in nuclear chemistry?
As a college junior I was awarded a National Science Foundation – Research Experience for Undergraduate Student Grant. The program sent me to Texas A&M Cyclotron Institute to perform nuclear physics/nuclear chemistry research. That summer I learned a great deal about nuclear reactions and nuclear reaction mechanism. I wanted to learn more so I enrolled in graduate school in nuclear chemistry. In graduate school, I received the Department of Energy Patricia Robert Harris Fellowship, which is given to support a woman in an under-represented area, like nuclear chemistry. This was a great opportunity, which paid me a salary and paid for my graduate school education, worth about $250,000.
Q. You taught high school for 10 years. Did teaching help you in your present career?
Teaching taught me how to break a problem into fundamental parts to get the final answer. Instead of tackling the whole problem in one chunk, I break a problem into individual parts using basic scientific principles. This helps me identify the hypothesis and experimental method. In reality, the science I use on a daily basis isn’t much more complicated than high school or freshman course work. It’s simply the knowledge of how to combine the principles in the right way to answer a question.
Q. You have been working as a senior scientist at the Harris Nuclear Plant for seven years. What is a typical day like?
Most of my day is spent using the computer. I investigate changes in concentration of radioactive atoms inside the reactor. I monitor the amount of radioactive nuclides (atomic species), such as tritium, in the plant. I research new methods to reduce the production and release of radioactive material. I also study the impact of releases of radioactive material on the environment, humans, and non-human species and work to mitigate the byproducts of nuclear power production. In nuclear power, we always focus foremost on nuclear safety – to ensure the protection of people and the environment.
Q. What do you like most about your job?
My job is pure science. I get to apply many of the scientific principles that I learned throughout my schooling. I am constantly experimenting and trying new things to make improvements. I design and develop new methods. Every day I learn something new and expand my brain.
Q. What subjects would you recommend to a high school student interested in a science-based career?
I recommend the basics: chemistry, physics and math. Nuclear chemistry is a very specialized career. You are studying the fundamental interactions of atoms, how radiation is formed and how it can be used.
Q. Do you have any other advice for a student interested in science but uncertain what kind of career he or she might want to pursue?
Start by figuring out what you like. Do you like learning about weather, the stars, how things work, or designing things? What do you find interesting or intriguing? I became interested in nuclear power in the third grade when I went on a field trip to a nuclear power plant. I remember learning about using radioactive material to make power. I thought this was interesting. So later when I decided to pursue a career in nuclear chemistry, working at a power plant seemed to be a natural fit. Think about field trips or subjects that really excited you. There are many resources on the internet where you can get ideas of careers in that field of study.
Q. What is something people may not know about you?
For the last several years, my family has hosted high school foreign exchange students. We love learning about different cultures, traditions and attitudes, and trying different foods. The time with our exchange students enriches our lives and we have made many new lifelong friends.