Spotlight: Deena Wright

March 2023 Edition

Deena Wright, Senior Program Specialist, STPO

Wright finds herself at home among the ‘magic’ of Argonne

Deena Wright, a senior program specialist in the Science and Technology Partnerships and Outreach (STPO) directorate, has moved several times over the years. But Argonne National Laboratory is her home, where she remains fascinated by its “magic.”

“There are so many things to love about my role,” said Wright. “But knowing that my contributions support the science and entrepreneurs who are the change-makers for our environmental stability, improvement and longevity—that is where the magic happens—and that truly makes it special.”

Wright facilitates programming for the innovators in Chain Reaction Innovations (CRI), an entrepreneurship program that embeds clean energy and climate tech start-up companies at the lab for about two years to help them de-risk and scale their technologies. Wright helps these innovators learn how to be entrepreneurs.

In addition, Wright is the program lead for Students for Energy and Entrepreneurial Development (SEED), a new internship program. CRI piloted SEED last summer and aims to launch the program this fall. This internship is designed to support undergrad students from minority-serving institutions in the Chicago area. They will be coached in entrepreneurial and business development skills and paired with CRI start-up companies for real-life experiences.

“They are astoundingly bright scientists already, but learning about business, project management, finance, marketing, pitching, and more are sometimes new and challenging for them,” said Wright. “CRI is here to help them develop as entrepreneurs by providing foundational knowledge in business areas. My role is developing the programming they participate in.”

The magic she sees involves such startups as Meati Foods, where they turn mycelium (the root network of mushrooms) into sustainable proteins, and ClearFlame Engine Technologies, which designed a modification for diesel engines so they can use cleaner fuels, like ethanol, to reduce emissions.

Wright started at Argonne in 2010 as an administrative assistant. She worked at Argonne for about eight years before being invited to interview with CRI as its strategic operations lead. She joined the team and continues to grow in her current role.

“I had no idea what CRI had in store for me at the time, but what a happy accident to have landed directly in a field that I didn’t know I was so passionate about—clean energy and climate tech,” Wright said. “My inspiration now comes from the innovators in CRI—their passion, drive and creativity.”

Wright’s experience has proven that science is like magic, but real.

“Don’t base your opinions of science on what you’ve learned in school,” Wright said. “I know that sounds odd, but science is so much more than the basic level you may have been exposed to in middle school and high school. It’s amazing and powerful, and although it can be complicated, you can do it. Many times, the reason people ‘don’t like science’ is because they didn’t have the right teacher. Give it a chance and you might be surprised at just how remarkably interesting it can be!”

Wright believes that if you’re working towards leadership roles it’s useful to study other leaders who you aspire to be like.

“Watch how they handle situations and manage people,” she said. “When you’re ready, which is sooner than you’ll think, go for it. Don’t doubt yourself because you’re likely capable of more than you’re giving yourself credit for.”

Wright was born in Tampa, Florida, and moved more than 30 times in her life, because her father worked around the country as a troubleshooter for his company. She now lives in Oswego with her husband, Rob Wright, a mechanical engineering specialist with the Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne, and her daughter and son, who are twins. She also has two stepsons.

Wright took off a few years when her twins were born, which complicated her efforts to re-enter the workforce, despite being a college graduate with work experience. Overcoming that barrier meant being relentless and not giving up. She started in lower-level positions to get a foot in the door, and worked hard to move forward, she said.

“I don’t regret my decision to take those years off when they were born, and I would choose the same path again,” Wright said.

Success feels good—it is a natural motivator on its own and tends to breed more success, said Wright.

“Like everyone, I have goals in life and being successful generally leads to some of those goals being met,” she said.

Most of all, she believes you should enjoy what you do.

“It may not be your destination but finding enjoyment in what you’re doing will make your days feel more fulfilling,” Wright said. “If you truly can’t find enjoyment in any facet of what you’re doing, it’s probably a sign to move on.”


Spotlight: Jessica Daniels

March 2023 Edition

Jessica Daniels, Project & Systems Management Lead, STPO

Daniels believes in honing skills to focus on boldness, confidence, exploration

Jessica A. Daniels, a project and systems management lead in the Science and Technology Partnerships and Outreach (S&TPO) directorate at Argonne, is a people organizer and project manager for systems that support the framework of external partnerships at Argonne.

She aims to help motivate and deliver change in big and small ways.

“I have one foot in the clouds with strategy, goal-setting and big-idea chasing; while my other foot is on the ground in the real ‘how do we make that happen’ planning and activities,” she said.

Those clouds can pave the road ahead.

“I think I’m at this place in this moment because when I’m up in those ‘clouds’ I see gaps and opportunities, or what the organization needs; and I am good at bringing it down to earth and communicating how I can and will support the change to get to that new state as an organization,” Daniels said.

Originally from the small town of Louisville, Ohio, Daniels now lives in Chicago with her spouse and their toddler. She earned a bachelor’s degree in organizational communications from Ohio University and a master’s degree in nonprofit administration from North Park University in Chicago.

“The best professional advice I received is ‘Plan your work and work your plan,’ which was something a college mentor would say to me. It echoes in my mind still.”

She joined Argonne in 2018 as a project lead in process improvement. Her motivation to succeed is simple, she said.

“In short, future me,” she said. “My definition of success includes whether people are willing to collaborate on a project again. My motivation is my reputation inside and outside of my organization.”

Besides cultivating a good reputation, she said that balance in your personal life and career is not the same as “equal.” But it is based on whether you feel like the areas of your life are in harmony with the way you want it to be.

“How I find and maintain a balance has changed over time with shifts in my role and responsibilities both in my career and outside of it,” Daniels said. “My relationship with my supervisor and my understanding of how that person expects me to communicate about my workload and management tend to be the biggest factors in how I manage and maintain boundaries.”

Daniels advises women to be aware of barriers in their career and what to do to overcome them.

“I think a common barrier for women in any career is having your work under-valued in both tangible and in-tangible ways. I work to overcome that barrier by taking a ‘just the facts’ approach for self-reflection and to be bold,” she said.

Those steps include tracking her work and accomplishments and the impact they made for her team and the organization, and using salary benchmarking tools that go outside of the industry in which she is working. Of course, there are some organizations where those facts don’t reduce or remove the barrier. The hardest barrier to overcome can be that personal decision to value your own work and having confidence and support to take a risk and make a move, she said.

She believes early career women in STEM, who are interested in leadership roles, should attend conferences and build a network of people and resources.

“Get out there and meet people. Introduce yourself and don’t play it cool. Admit and own that you want the future you see someone else living, whether or not you have anything in common,” she said.

She also recommends treating any opportunity to learn about leadership roles like any other possible area of study.

“Ask the same kind of exploratory questions about those leadership responsibilities and discussions that you would ask about an area of research, planning or design you are pursuing,” she said.

Most of all, she wants to inspire young women interested in STEM to be bold whenever possible.

“I have so many things to say to young women interested in STEM!” Daniels said. “Here are a few: Everything is STEM and whether your educators made you feel like you were good at it or not doesn’t have much to do with what you can do. Whatever opportunity you have, explore something interesting, be as brave as you can (or fake it!) and take it. Give yourself permission to change your mind.”

Spotlight: Lindsay Buettner

March 2023 Edition

Lindsay Buettner

Lindsay Buettner, University Student Program Lead, STPO

Buettner sees holistic approach to avoid imposter syndrome and achieve a STEM career

Lindsay Buettner, a university student program lead in the Science and Technology Partnerships’ Educational Programs, believes in taking a holistic approach to guide students in STEM careers and to avoid imposter syndrome, because that helped her professionally as well.

The holistic approach started when Buettner was younger, a time when she debated with herself on whether she was qualified for a professional opportunity.

“I had a million ‘what if ’ questions that were discouraging me from applying,” she said.” Then a personal mentor simply asked me, ‘What do you have to lose? Even filling out the application is valuable experience.’ If he only knew that I have kept that with me for probably hundreds of dilemmas, small and big, for years now. What do I have to lose in trying something new, putting myself out of my comfort zone, asking a question, advocating for myself? Nothing. Even if it doesn’t turn out the way I hoped, I approach each process as a learning experience.”

Buettner uses that same advice when working extensively with students to combat imposter syndrome. She manages undergraduate and graduate students engaging with U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. This includes recruitment, skill bootcamps, internships and other student appointments. She facilitates the connection between students and researchers (also called mentors), and supports those pairs before, during, and after their research engagement with Argonne. That support is holistic, with academic, career, and social/emotional programming to help students overcome imposter syndrome, bolster their STEM identity, and connect them to their next step. She also focuses on increased equity and access across opportunities for students in groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in STEM.

“I have the privilege of looking into the future, and it is bright,” Buettner said. “The students my team gets to support and work with daily are the future thinkers, innovators, and change agents for STEM. They will work on technologies and methods that don’t even exist yet. Their enthusiasm and ability to see limitless potential is inspiring.”

Buettner earned a master’s degree in school counseling from Lewis University and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Loyola University Chicago. She lives in Woodridge with her 9-month-old son, Theo, and husband, Chris, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology. Chris is a pharmaceutical clinical study manager for Astellas. Besides Chris, Buettner has numerous in-laws and friends in STEM majors and professions.

“It’s the running joke that this counselor is the only one to end up at a national lab,” she said.

After earning her degrees, Buettner spent several years in the post-secondary world helping students explore their professional interests, build transferrable skills and connect them to internship opportunities. She then attended a tour and information session at Argonne to learn more about the career pathways available for her students and she fell under the spell of the laboratory herself. Buettner started working at Argonne in March 2020.

“Argonne is such a unique environment for students to be exposed to the realm of national labs, as well as how their research connects to academia, industry, local communities, and even national/international development,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be a part of opening this door of opportunity to students.”

She firmly believes that each student has a voice, and it is important to use as an intern.

“That voice is shaped by your unique experiences, and it adds value to your personal and professional environments,” Buettner said. “Speak up! Anyone starting out in a field experiences imposter syndrome, afraid of asking what could be deemed as a ‘dumb’ question, doubting their qualifications for that role and wondering if they have what it takes to succeed.”

She believes imposter syndrome is doubly true for women, who are still an underrepresented group in STEM.

“There is this invisible, added pressure when you’re the only woman in the room. ‘Will I sound intelligent? Will my idea be heard? Should I volunteer for this task or does the researcher want someone else to do it?’ Who knows how many experiences we have collectively missed out on as women by giving into those negative thoughts and not using our voice. Advocate for yourself and your ideas.” Buettner said.

Buettner also subscribes to the butterfly effect in life, meaning one small action can have a large impact down the line on yourself, on others, and on complex societal systems.

“That’s not to put pressure on each of your actions to have huge significance, but rather a reminder that all accomplishments start small,” she said. “Think of a female leader in STEM who you admire. Every single one of those women was at one point a student, trying to get to class on time or completing a homework assignment. So have confidence in yourself, be open to opportunities and celebrate your ‘tiny’ wins. You are building your STEM pathway, one brick at a time.”

In addition, Buettner believes in work-life balance as part of building that pathway, especially as a mother of a newborn.

“I had an incredible amount of anxiety before his birth on work-life balance,” she said. “On my professional side, I was concerned that I would be viewed differently at work and would have to put my professional ambitions on hold. Then on my personal side, I worried I would feel guilty leaving him to go to work, and my attention would always be split. By and large, I was able to avoid those concerns and find balance by communicating. Self-advocacy is something I have personally struggled with as a woman, particularly not wanting to seem incapable if I ask for help or seem difficult if I propose an alternative.”

However, once she let go of that negative self-talk, she started a meaningful dialogue with others. Both at work and at home, she had a village that has been accommodating when she clearly communicated her thoughts or needs.

“Particularly at Argonne, I’ve found the environment and people who work here to value their employees as humans,” she said. “Work and life responsibilities will constantly evolve, and I firmly believe everyone involved being on the same page is key to finding balance.”

Success in her role ultimately comes from serving others, such as connecting students to opportunities, support networks, research mentors, and their inner power.

“Motivation for that is both internal as I am fulfilled by supporting others to achieve, and external from the student feedback we receive,” she said. “That email from a former student, years after their internship, updating you on their new job, graduate degree, house they bought, etc. and citing their experience at Argonne as the catalyst is fuel for me. Anyone at the lab who is involved with students, directly or indirectly, has the power to effect change at such a pivotal moment in their personal and professional lives.”




Spotlight: Liz Schmidt

January 2023 Edition

Liz Schmidt, User Experiment Oversight, AES

A world-renowned physicist, a presidential candidate and a film director are all credited with coining phrases that say, in one way or another, just keep showing up and you’ll succeed, no matter what the obstacles.

Liz Schmidt, who conducts user experiment oversight for the user community at the Advanced Photon Source, a Department of Energy Office of Science user facility, took the phrase to heart early on in her career. It paid off.

“When I first started my career, I often felt invisible in a room or situation because I was young and often the only woman,” said Schmidt, who first worked in the manufacturing industry after earning a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Albion College. “I overcame that by continuously showing up and not listening to negative thoughts in my head.  I knew that I belonged in the room based upon my credentials, even if I felt otherwise sometimes.”

After steady encouragement to pursue a scientific career from professors at Albion, Schmidt initially found her work life a bit lonely and jarring. Conversations on the manufacturing floor were sometimes abrasive and she realized she needed a proverbially thicker skin. Over time, she began to stand up for herself, listened to advice from coworkers, grew more comfortable asking questions, and refused to be afraid to take the initiative on projects or tasks.

“I spoke up if I had an idea or knew a way that a task could be done in a safer or more efficient manner,” said Schmidt. “Because I do know; this is my area of expertise.”

Three years into her position with Argonne, Schmidt says she enjoys a balanced and collegial work environment. She meets with APS users, sees experiment set-ups, walks through how experiments will be conducted and helps explain how users may need to conform what they’re doing to meet Argonne’s safety standards and conduct their experiments in a safe way.

“I enjoy my interaction with users, and I try to promote a dialogue in order to get to a solution,” said Schmidt. “Some experiments are more complicated than others, but knowing that I help users conduct research that allows new scientific discoveries to be made that have an impact on so many different facets of our world really motivates me.”

Schmidt makes a point of showing up for herself, too. She unwinds by gardening, beachcombing for seashells on vacations, and taking spin classes.

“I block out time for myself,” she said. “If I don’t do that, I am just not as good of a colleague or a family member.”

Spotlight: Uta Ruett

January 2023 Edition

Uta Ruett, Physicist, Group Leader, XSD

Are successful women in science and math truly exceptional, or do social biases simply frame them that way?

Uta Ruett, a physicist and group leader in the X-ray Sciences Division (XSD), faced this question as a young student in Germany. While she easily achieved high scores in physics and math and was often labeled “exceptional” for her work, female peers were routinely rated lower than boys showing very similar performance.

“How is this fair?” Ruett remembers wondering. “I was always told, ‘Uta, you are an exception!’ But I never wanted to be treated as an exception. I truly think it was bias.”

Ruett received considerable support from instructors and mentors in both Germany and the United States. Eventually, she earned a PhD in Physics from the University of Hamburg. However, even after earning that difficult degree and excelling in her work, she ran into overt discouragement based on her sex.

“When I was told by someone I admired that I shouldn’t waste my time getting a PhD because eventually I would just get married, have children and then drop out, it was very hurtful,” said Ruett. “It also took me off guard because he was kind in every other way. I think he just said what many people think. And it was indeed a question for me, if I could work in science and still be a mother in the future.”

In fact, Ruett did get married, have three children in short sequence, and paused her career. She was offered a part-time position as scientist after staying at home with her first son for more than a year. The professor who encouraged her return to work was very supportive of women in science and continued to offer highly flexible work conditions after her second son was born.

The position ramped quickly into more time-consuming ones. Ruett alternated between onsite and remote work, putting in unusual hours at night and on weekends. “I tried to make it look easy, but it wasn’t easy,” said Ruett with a laugh.

Today, she advocates for other women and caregivers at Argonne to have better experiences. As president of Argonne’s Employee Resource Group for parents and caregivers (PACE), she believes that the more flexible work options encouraged during the pandemic are a huge step forward for women and society in general.

“Remote work, if possible, is a real breakthrough,” she said. “You do have to adjust the workflow, but it can be a huge win-win.”

Ruett believes it’s also important that men who step up as caregivers themselves talk about it. “When a male director at Argonne says that he has to reschedule an appointment because he needs to drive his daughter to the dentist, it demonstrates acceptance and respect for work-life balance on all career levels.”