Katie Heroux, Senior Scientist
- Savannah River National Laboratory
- B.S., Chemistry, University of New Hampshire; M.S. and Ph.D., Inorganic Chemistry, University of California, San Diego
Katie Heroux has worked four years for the Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL), an applied research and development laboratory near Aiken, South Carolina, that is run by the U.S. Department of Energy. As a research scientist in the Hydrogen Processing Group (part of the Defense Programs Technology Section), she is responsible for most of the R&D efforts in advanced metal hydride storage beds for SRNL's Tritium Facilities.
The storage of hydrogen gas, and all of its isotopes, in conventional containers leads to safety concerns because of the high pressures and large volume requirements. Thus, the storage of hydrogen in metals or metal alloys, through metal hydride bond formation, allows for large quantities of gas to be stored in smaller volumes at lower pressures. Finding the materials that can efficiently store and release hydrogen for particular applications is an active area of research. Heroux focuses her efforts on technology development and process optimization of metal hydride storage in support of the tritium processing facility at SRNL.
Heroux also contributes to the design and technology development of tritium (the radioactive isotope of hydrogen) fuel cycles for various defense and energy-related applications, including research efforts in fusion energy. Additionally, she chairs the Laboratory Safety Improvement Team, which plays a lead role in maintaining and encouraging the safety culture at SRNL.
As an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire, she began doing research during her sophomore year, an experience she describes as "immensely rewarding and crucial to my success in graduate school." Her research involved inorganic synthesis, crystallography, and modeling of isotopically labeled complexes used for cancer imaging.
By her senior year, she was a full-time researcher, co-author of several publications, and a presenter at her first ACS national meeting. Looking back, she thinks that it might have been advantageous to intern in an industrial setting before graduate school to gain a better understanding of the sector in which she wanted to pursue a career.
In her graduate studies at the University of California, San Diego, Heroux’s research efforts in synthetic inorganic chemistry and crystallography continued, but with a focus on molecular magnetism and quantum phenomena. During her final year of graduate school, Heroux attended the career fair at an ACS national meeting. "I interviewed for a postdoctoral position with SRNL while I was there and was later invited for an on-site interview," she said. She was offered a postdoc position doing nanomaterial synthesis, characterization, and functionalization for various sensing and energy-related projects. Heroux spent a year as a postdoc, during which time her advisor transferred to the Hydrogen Processing Group at SRNL. She followed her advisor to that group, where she was hired as a permanent staff member at the end of her postdoc appointment.
Every day is different depending on what deadlines are approaching. I might spend 90% of my day running experiments and collecting data in the lab or I might spend 90% of my time analyzing data and writing reports in my office. At other times, I am in meetings or seminars all day or writing updates and proposals for future funding opportunities. I also spend time publishing my research and presenting at conferences and meetings.
I am not required to travel, but I do get the opportunity to present my work at conferences or meetings with customers several times a year.
My iPhone! I use my government-issued iPhone to check e-mails when I’m off-site and take photos of my lab work, since I'm not allowed to access the site network with my personal phone or computer for security reasons. I also use LabView to design processes, and I use MS Excel for spreadsheets.
I work in a cubicle most of the day surrounded by other cubicles and a few offices, which are separated from the laboratory space in the building. The cubicle space is an open and friendly environment. I share the laboratory space with several other researchers who work on small-scale hydride materials characterization and testing. I work primarily on a large gas handling manifold for testing production-scale hydride beds.
I generally work a 40-hour week. Overtime is not required as long as you consistently get your work done and deliver quality results. There are stressful times, but overall the work environment is relaxed. At SRNL, no job is too important to put your health and safety at risk.
Because the majority of my research supports the needs of a plant that runs 24/7 and is a crucial part of maintaining our nation’s security, I am able to see the immediate applications of my work. It's exciting to know that some of the technologies I have helped develop may be deployed in the process facility in the next couple of years. I am also grateful that my job allows me (and supports me) to continue to pursue volunteer and professional development activities.
Lists and deadlines. I love to make lists of small tasks I need to complete in a given week. Seeing everything crossed off my list is a very satisfying feeling! Also, if I am given a task that does not have a strict deadline, I always make one for myself and put it in my calendar. That way, I won't forget or be rushed to complete it at the last minute.
Be open-minded, you never know when one opportunity might lead to the next.
I can effectively communicate my work to a wide variety of audiences. Writing reports or giving highly technical presentations in your field is important, but working at a national lab, I am often asked to speak to more general audiences, upper level management, government officials, etc.
The work that I do now is completely unrelated to the research I did as an undergraduate or graduate student. Being enthusiastic and adaptable is extremely important for finding opportunities in today's job market.
The ACS national meetings and career services have been tremendous resources for me. I have benefited from the resume reviews, job fairs, and interviews at national meetings — which is how I landed my current job!
My active participation in the ACS on the local and national levels has allowed me to grow personally and professionally through community involvement and the opportunity to share my experiences with other chemists around the world.
I'm chair-elect of my local ACS section, and I was recently named a 2015 Local Section Outreach Volunteer of the Year for my work on planning and organizing community outreach events. My local section has performed chemistry demonstrations at a local children's hospital and the Salvation Army and hosted ACS Webinars at local universities. We have also worked on local charity drives and sponsored events for Chemists Celebrate Earth Day and National Chemistry Week. Our local section also gives chemistry demonstrations and sponsors career panels at the local high schools.
Our local ACS section’s Younger Chemists Committee (which I chaired from 2012-2014) won a 2014 ChemLuminary Award for increasing our visibility among college students and the creation of a strong partnership with the local Salvation Army. At the 2015 ACS Leadership Institute in Dallas, I gave two presentations on the successful activities of our YCC. Our local section and YCC have both been named finalists for 2015 ChemLuminary awards and have been invited to present our activities at the Fall ACS National Meeting in Boston, which I’m excited to be a part of!
Because the majority of my research supports the needs of a plant that runs 24/7 and is a crucial part of maintaining our nation’s security, I am able to see the immediate applications of my work."