More From Forest Products Laboratory’s Legacy of Women Researchers

This is the second in a series of inspirational stories about the incredible women scientists at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL).

Eloise Gerry, first FPL & Forest Service woman scientist.

Every month of the year, and especially during Women’s History Month, FPL celebrates the legacy and precedent set by FPL’s and the Forest Service’s first woman scientist, Eloise Gerry. In this edition, we would like to continue to showcase the incredible women scientists who have followed in her extraordinary, trailblazing footsteps.

Like nearly all remarkable stories, they are often most powerful when told straight from the women themselves. Take a moment to meet the women who are positively changing the world through forest products research and making it a better place to inhabit:

Katie Ohno, PhD

Research Biologist – Wood Durability and Wood Protection

Why did you decide to get into a STEM field?

I was always interested in science and loved being outdoors as a little girl. My younger brother and I would frequently climb trees, play in the dirt, and even collect dragonflies and lady bugs. We would make it a game to see how fast we could climb a tree or how many creatures we could collect. When discerning a college major, I knew right away it should be in the STEM field but I wasn’t quite sure which field. I thought about Biology, Chemistry, Pre-Vet and Pre-Med and ultimately chose Biochemistry with a Pre-Med influence. I intended to apply to medical school, but really found a passion working in a research lab as an undergraduate at Mississippi State.

Who or what inspired your career? And what keeps you inspired?

One of my influences was my high school Chemistry teacher, Mrs. Montgomery. She created engaging lab exercises for our class and it really made me consider a career in science. Another one of my influences was my PI at Mississippi State, Dr. Susan Diehl. Not only did she teach me basic lab techniques, she let me work on several different research projects allowing me to really find a love for figuring out ways to get answers to research questions. Lastly, my Microbiology lab TA at Mississippi State, Dr. Crystal Boudreaux, played a big role in my discerning to further my education after undergrad. Seeing a young, female scientist working on a PhD in microbiology really inspired me to pursue a career in microbiology.

What is the best part of your research?

Lab work. I love being in the lab. I really enjoy trying to answer research questions with the incredible techniques I’ve learn throughout my career. There are always questions that need answers.

Do you have a message for young women thinking of pursuing a STEM career?

Science is always evolving and as a result so are the ways you go about addressing a particular problem or question. Continue to be inquisitive. Continue to strive for answers. Continue to let your mind be your greatest strength, and never let anything hold you back.

Nayomi Plaza Rodriguez

Materials Research Scientist – Wood, Fiber, and Composites

Why did you decide to get into a STEM field? 

I got the chance to work in a metallurgy lab as a high school student and working on that first research project got me hooked. 

Who or what inspired your career? And what keeps you inspired? 

Getting to answer tough questions that ultimately impact our daily lives is very rewarding and is ultimately what keeps me inspired.  Working on that first science fair project heat-treating aluminum can tabs really set everything in motion.  It opened my eyes to a completely different field that I hadn’t considered till then.  I was inspired by my science teachers, and professors throughout undergraduate and graduate school.  

What is the best part of your research? 

Being a part of the next materials revolution! 

Do you have a message for young women thinking of pursuing a STEM career? 

Look for opportunities to learn more about the career you’re interested in.  Doing so can be a real game-changer that can help you discover new careers you may have not heard about before. We love what we do and we’re eager to share what our careers look like.  

Laura Hasburgh, PhD, P.E.

Materials Research Engineer – Building and Fire Sciences

Why did you decide to get into a STEM field? 

I always enjoyed science and math as a young girl and was fascinated by architecture. When introduced to fire protection engineering in college, I was drawn to the human element and love knowing that my work directly impacts the safety of people in a building. I also enjoy the opportunity to work with a variety of people because fire safety impacts other engineering disciplines such as structural, mechanical, and architectural.

Who or what inspired your career? And what keeps you inspired? 

Initially, an undergraduate course in fire protection engineering influenced the direction of my professional and academic careers. I have also had amazing mentors and support along the way both professionally and academically. And, while fire research can be fun and innovative (who doesn’t like to think of new ways to burn things?), ultimately, the human side of my work is not only important but serious and drives my research.

What is the best part of your research? 

There is no typical day at the lab. The research varies from day to day. One day I could be in the fire lab running tests on wood products, wood decking, cross-laminated timber, and wood composite materials. Other days, I’m back at my desk analyzing the data or working on Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) or American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) committee activities.

My job is looking at wood as a building material, making sure we understand its fire performance. There are increasing opportunities in my field with how popular a building material wood is becoming. Builders are looking for ways to save money and reduce their carbon footprint. Wood is a lighter weight, more energy-efficient tall building material. My goal is to make tall wood buildings and other wood structures a safe reality.

Do you have a message for young women thinking of pursuing a STEM career? 

To be a good researcher, you need to be personally driven. At the lab, you have some requirements on papers and publishing a certain amount each year, but in general, the research is up to you. You have to be someone who likes to delve into something incredibly deeply. And you have to maintain your own momentum.

Also, do not underestimate the importance of mentors and advisers. I recommend finding a support network of professors, fellow students, and colleagues. And, practice and develop your communication skills. Engineering is a problem-solving profession, but you have to be able to communicate your solution.

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In the coming weeks, we’ll be telling more inspirational stories highlighting the extraordinary women who are helping to ensure forest products are part of a more sustainable future…

To find out more about the extraordinary contributions our researchers are making to the world of wood science, please visit the Forest Products Laboratory at https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/