Photo courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration.
From favorite books to mentoring advice, Dr. Njema Frazier shares reflections on her experiences as a theoretical nuclear physicist with the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration.
Question: Why did you decide to specialize in theoretical nuclear physics?
Dr. Njema Frazier: When I was deciding on graduate schools, one -- Michigan State University -- was fortunate enough to have a particle accelerator on site. The presence of the accelerator, a cyclotron to be exact, signaled a strong program and tipped the scales towards nuclear physics. From there, it was the theory behind nucleon-nucleon interactions, nuclear structures and nuclear transitions that held my interest; and so I decided on theory (vs. experimental) and nuclear structure (vs. nuclear reactions).
Question: Did you have a role model who supported you along the way?
NM: I have had many role models, but it might surprise you to know that none them studied physics, or any field of science or engineering. These role models were ones of character, courage and perseverance who showed me how to be strong, how to follow my own path, how to be confident, how to be honest and how to do what I know to be right -- for me and in dealing with others. And because of them, I really had no hesitancy or insecurity about pursuing a science degree (even a Physics one!) in college.
Question: Of your work at NNSA, what achievement has been the most memorable?
NM: I’d say my most memorable achievement is serving, before I left, as the Acting Deputy Director of the Advanced Simulation and Computing (ASC) program and Federal manager for the NNSA weapons physics code and model development portfolio.
Question: What projects are you working on right now?
NM: I am on detail at the National Defense University, standing up a Nuclear and Energy Security curriculum at the direction of the former Undersecretary of Nuclear Security and NNSA Administrator, Tom D’Agostino. This assignment carries within it a host of smaller projects related to teaching, research, budgets, professional development, outreach, stakeholder involvement and partnerships.
Question: What strategies help you manage the challenges presented by your work at NNSA?
NM: I face workload challenges by focusing on organization and accountability. I routinely define projects, actions, deadlines and lines of authority. On a more interpersonal level, I face challenges by trying to communicate openly and honestly with people, with the underlying assumption that any conflicts can be resolved by exhibiting mutual respect and a focus on win-win solutions.
Question: What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing a career in STEM (disciplines grounded in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)?
NM: If you’re interested in STEM, go for it! Not only is it interesting, it is challenging (in a good way), it teaches you how the world works, it teaches you how to find solutions, it teaches you how to work with others, its filled with smart people, and it is THE economic engine of the 21st century. So really, if you are interested in a STEM career, there’s every reason to try it, and no real reason not to.
Question: Can you share a bit about your experiences mentoring K-12 students in science education?
NM: Mentoring, tutoring and working with students has been one of the most rewarding elements of my life. It’s given me perspective, it’s reminded me why I love science, and its allowed me to help bright young minds enjoy math and science, enjoy learning and enjoy discovery. If I’ve learned one thing in working with students, it’s that scientists aren’t made: they are unmade. If I can stem the tide of young people losing their enthusiasm for, and curiosity about, science, then I’m happy to do it. “All day!” as my students say.
Question: What’s the most exciting thing you’ve been able to do as a result as your work at NNSA?
NM: I don’t know about exciting, but I have thoroughly enjoyed interacting with US and UK laboratory scientists. From the chemists and materials scientists, to the computer scientists, analysts, and of course, the physicists -- they have been outstanding minds who don’t think twice about doing more than is expected to meet the National Security mission. Pretty exciting to be surrounded by “wicked smart” people dedicated to our security.
Question: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
NM: Free time. Qu'est-ce que c'est “Free Time”? In my free time, I speak to students, visit schools, participate in advocacy efforts to broaden participation in STEM, mentor young scientist and engineers and engage groups of STEM professionals on issues of public policy. And in my free-free time, I read, I check on my family and friends, and watch Scandal and Game of Thrones!
What is on your reading list right now?
NM: I have two books in my purse right now: The Greatest Networker in the World, by John Milton Frogg (self-help: check) and A Leopard Novel: Savage Nature by Christine Feehan (supernatural fiction: check).