My name is Alyssa McKenna, and I once thought of life as a mathematical equation. If I entered the correct values for all the variables, I would understand my life’s purpose and the correct action to take in every dilemma. Following this revelation, I switched my undergraduate major from English to physics. Because I spent my childhood running as far and fast from my parents’ occupation (they’re both engineers), my parents will rightfully never stop teasing me about this rather dramatic but not wholly unexpected change of heart. Since finishing my undergraduate degree and beginning graduate work at the University of Minnesota, my thinking has not changed much. But I have learned that some variables have more than one value that will make a life worthwhile.
When I tell people that I am starting my fifth year working on my PhD in Materials Science, I am commonly asked about the “value” I input for my career variable – materials science – since very few have heard of this emerging field. Materials scientists discover new materials (biodegradable plastics!), formulate new ways to make ones we already know about (The raw material costs how much?), study material properties (How far can we bend this before we destroy it?), and engineer devices or tools out of the materials we study (What materials will make phone batteries smaller, last longer, and run cooler so that we can play Pokemon Go for longer?). My project is to study how materials with thicknesses on the order of hundredths of the width of a human hair respond to ultrafast pulses of light (trillionths of a second) because these materials show promise to be used in thin, flexible electronics. In such thin samples, heat generated by the laser pulse may not have time to leave the sample before the next pulse, which could lead to melting of the electronic! Thus, I study how heat moves on incredibly fast (billionths of a second) timescales in these thin materials to prevent that catastrophe.
The other variables that have increasingly influenced my life are my race and gender. When I started as an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College, an all-women liberal arts college in central Massachusetts, I was introduced to the vocabulary to describe my experience as a biracial woman, started to think hard about the influence of race, and began to wrestle with racial privilege. The equation was further muddled when I came to the University of Minnesota and was confronted by the role my gender plays in my identity. I was attracted to the Chemical Engineering and Materials Science Department because of our relatively large, vibrant, and active community of female scholars, but coming from an all-women’s college, I noticed immediately that there just are not very many and not enough women in science, and reading the literature about the effect of gender on success in a scientific career is subduing. As a scientist, researching and writing about these realities are my way of thinking and brainstorming different values for that equation to change the world for the better.
When I am not thinking about science or social justice, I love to read, dance, bike, play music, and laugh. A voracious bookroom, I become temporarily deaf and blind while devouring a book, a malady that can be cured with puppies, friends, or the book’s end. I love to dance – particularly ballet – and may be caught dancing around the building where I work when I think no one is looking. Since coming to graduate school, I have put my ten years of classical piano training to good use by joining a community band and learning how to play percussion instruments from snare drum to kitchen bowls at deafening volume. I can even play several simultaneously. While some describe me as “quiet,” my laugh is not. People can locate me exactly by telling a joke.