Women @ Energy: Laura Riihimaki
Laura Riihimaki is an atmospheric scientist in the Climate Physics group at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Her research interests focus on understanding the climate through remote sensing measurements from ground and satellite instruments that provide a unique view of the atmosphere and formation of clouds. She is passionate about science education and the need to communicate scientific research to the public, to help inform decision-making, and the way society chooses to live. She was recognized with the 2014 PNNL Laboratory Director’s Fitzner-Eberhardt Award, honoring outstanding contributions to science and education, for her dedication to shaping the next generation of scientists through her mentoring activities with numerous programs. She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Wheaton College and a doctorate in physics from the University of Oregon and is an active member of the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society.
1) What inspired you to work in STEM?
I decided I loved science way back around first grade. I especially loved the mysteriousness of it – electricity and atoms in particular – and the way that things that seemed foreign to our everyday experiences actually explained the world and the way it works. I don’t remember it specifically starting in school, but I was an avid reader and that’s probably where my interest began. Then I had fantastic science teachers in high school and by the time I entered college, I already knew I wanted to be a physics major.
2) What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?
I am very happy to be working at a DOE laboratory, where the problems we get to work on are important to society. Challenges such as climate change and its connections to energy and water, as well as sustainable solutions such as solar and wind power. I really like being able to work on big projects that can have a large impact, and to do it in a collaborative environment. I work with quality people who bring expertise, enthusiasm, and commitment to projects. Plus I just love focusing on nature’s mysteries, such as clouds. They are not only beautiful, but also complex, and can surprise you.
3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
In my experience, engaging them early matters. We need to be talking to students in elementary school, middle school, and high school, and giving them the opportunity to experience science, engineering, and mathematics and providing support through mentoring and groups that help students stick with it. That way, when it gets hard, they have someone to encourage them through it and tell them “you can do it.” It’s not necessarily too late when they get to college, but since course work for many scientific majors – such as physics – is sequential, if you don’t start early it can be harder to catch up. So the more we can catch early, the better the chances they’ll make those choices and stick with it.
4) Do you have tips you’d recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
Beware of the glass ceiling that’s in your own head. Social pressure can make you think you shouldn’t be there, but you can choose to ignore that voice in your own mind. Focus on what you want to do rather than what you think you’re able to do. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, being willing to say you don’t know something in order to learn it may actually be the smartest thing you can do.
5) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
Gardening, being outside, walking by the river, hiking. Reading, especially stories that capture my imagination.