UNLV alumna Nancy Washton, who graduated with her bachelor’s in chemistry in 2001, recently participated in the nationwide #SitWithMe campaign, which encourages young women to enter science, computing, and engineering careers.
“In social sciences the term ‘other’ refers to a group that has lesser stature and power as compared to the primary group,” Washton said. “My entire life I have lived as ‘other’: socioeconomically ‘other’, generationally ‘other’, and scientifically ‘other’. The isolation generated by being ‘other’ undermines self-confidence and ability to function, regardless of rationally knowing that one is competent.
“Showing young women they will not be an isolated ‘other’ is critical to first encouraging them to pursue STEM careers, and second to providing a framework for success as they move into these fields.”
Washton works as a research scientist and capability lead for the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. She collaborates on research projects where nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers provide insight into the questions posed by the research. As capability lead, she manages approximately 40 scientific projects that use magnetic resonance as a major contributor to the research at hand.
At UNLV as a non-traditional 32-year-old student who needed to attend a local school or not attend college at all, a chance encounter followed by years of mentoring made all the difference to Washton.
While she was sitting outside, reading the journal Science and waiting for an organic chemistry class to begin, she saw a finger poke at the journal—a finger attached to the class’ professor, Linda Sapochak.
“ ‘I want you to work for me,’ Dr. Sapochak shot out. I was momentarily speechless, having difficulty understanding,” Washton said. “She smiled as she sat down next to me, and explained that she was in the process of setting up her research lab focusing on synthesizing new compounds and fabricating organic light emitting diodes. ‘Any undergraduate that reads Science on their own should be working in the lab.’ ”
Washton spent more than three years under Sapochak’s guidance, and was able to run experiments at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source, travel to conferences, and publish her own discoveries.
“Dr. Sapochak unerringly guided me scientifically and personally, never wavering in her support or willingness to guide me through the unspoken issues common to many women in technical fields,” Washton said. “I attribute much of my success to Linda, and I will be forever in her debt for the mentoring she provided.”
In fact, Washton, who went on to earn her Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Penn State University in 2007, thinks matching girls with practicing female scientists would encourage them to pursue STEM education.