Visualizing Women in Science, Mathematics and Engineering
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  • Elaine Di Masi

    Scientific staff-member at Brookhaven National Laboratories in New York, Elaine Di Masi has noticed that when she describes her research to adults who are not in the field, they often assume that they can't understand what she does. She would like to dispel the idea that science is bewildering: ``I do outreach programs with nine year-olds and I use a lot of the same language with them that I would use with adults. They never say they can't understand; they figure things out because they still believe that they can."

    Di Masi grew up in Pittsburgh, where her father was an electrical engineer and her mother, who had a degree in biology, worked in a lab for a couple of years. Both of her parents did carpentry and pottery, were able to make or fix most things, and explain how they worked. ``There was a lot of doing things by hand in my house, a lot of encouragement to do things manually," Di Masi explains. Di Masi found a way to channel her manual dexterity, intelligence, and curiosity about the way things work into her studies when a high school teacher sparked her interest in physics, which she went on to study at Pennsylvania State University.

    After receiving her bachelor's from Penn State in 1990, Di Masi earned her doctoral degree in Physics from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1996. Because it seemed like an invigorating and challenging environment for research, she then applied to work at Brookhaven Labs. Although they had not been actively seeking a post-doc at the time, they were impressed enough by Di Masi to create a position for her. She stayed on after her post-doc finished as part of the scientific staff.

    Di Masi now works at Brookhaven in a research group that runs Beamlines, one of the experimental stations at the world renowned National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS)-a research machine used by thousands of scientists annually. Di Masi conducts experiments using X-rays to study the way that the atomic structure of metals and insulators effects the electrical properties of these materials. After collecting data, Di Masi explains, ``you try to make up a story about what it means; you look at how the x-rays scatter and try to fit this into the big picture. Maybe there's a whole family of related materials, or maybe they differ in some systematic way."

    The hands-on education that was part of Di Masi's up-bringing still informs her approach to research today: ``I like to have something tangible in my hands. I'm not done until I have something to show: a graph, a scientific paper, new software, or whatever. I want to have something new at the end of a project." She considers her worst obstacle to be her own laziness: ``Sometimes you have to hammer away at things way longer than you want to." But the rewards of working with others, solving challenging problems, and contributing concretely to the formation of new knowledge provide worthwhile incentives that keep her going.

    In addition to her research, Di Masi enjoys working with her dog in obedience training, doing sound engineering, and playing folk and contradance music in a band with other scientists, including her husband.