A Winding Road: From the Hills to the Halls of NIST
Jeremiah Woodcock, Chemist, National Institute of Standards and Technology
My mother and father did not plan to become parents while still in high school, but they never viewed it in a negative light and soon presented me with three brothers and a sister. Even at their tender age, they did an amazing job raising us. As I grew up, I discovered I had a deep curiosity about the world around me. I just wanted to know how things worked. Despite some disadvantages, this curiosity and some incredible opportunities led me to an unexpected career in science.
After my father retired from the military for medical reasons, we settled in Missouri in a small town called Salem, which is located near the center of the state. I was still curious, but I found the curriculum of the local high school lacking. Emphasis was put on courses that had to do with the Future Farmers of America (FFA) and the local football program, which, by the way, was outstanding! This tiny school went to the state playoffs almost every year, and they were conference champions for decades prior to my entry! As you might conclude, scholastic achievement was not what was expected of us. My high school counselor told me that I would make a great skilled laborer or farmer and should plan thusly.
In the Army Now
Those options were quite depressing to my mind, and as a result, I lost interest in my education. Instead, I started working at a local dairy farm, joined the football team and contemplated my options. One day, we were asked to take a standard exam — the ASVAB to be exact. At the time, I had no idea what this meant or what it was for. I bet you, fine reader, will need to look up this acronym as well. I will save you the trouble: Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. A battery! This test changed my life profoundly.
A few days later, I was sitting in class listening to yet another rendition of Macbeth when the counselor barged in and rushed over to me. I was quite surprised. I remember thinking at the time that either one of my siblings or I were in some sort of trouble. That did happen from time to time. Instead, he said in a loud, excited voice, “Jeremiah! I didn’t know you were smart!” I thought of a few choice replies, but, being prudent, I did not voice them.
It turned out that I scored in the top 1% of everyone who took the ASVAB that year. I won’t get into the boring details about GT scores, etc., but I soon had an interview, which I did not elicit, with the local recruiter’s office in Rolla, Missouri. They showed me all sorts of videos of manly men doing manly things (women were not allowed in combat jobs at the time). A spark of inspiration hit me, and I inquired about education. Honestly, I don’t know why I asked. I had not thought about college for some time because I thought it was out of my reach. He showed me the student loan repayment program and what jobs I could enlist for to get it.
The summer after I graduated from high school I took the age waiver to my parents and enlisted the next day for field artillery! It had the flashiest video to my 17-year-old mind. I soon found myself stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I still remember reporting to my first sergeant. He did not even look up from his desk. He said, “Soldier, when will you be ready to go to air assault school?” I gave the only reply I could think of at the time: “When you tell me to, First Sergeant.” He then looked up and said, “That is the best damned answer I have heard in a while.” I was in my unit two days and was already shifted to a new billet with the air assault school. That was several days of fun in the sun. HA!
Upon returning to my unit, I received orientation regarding my artillery battery: First of the 15th Air Assault Artillery in the 101st Airborne Division. Quite exhilarating, all should try it. That is where I came into myself. I grew and learned who I was, and most importantly, gained confidence in myself.
A few missions and promotions later, I was approached by my platoon sergeant. He asked if I knew anything about NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical warfare). I remember thinking, “Crap.” I knew nothing about it, and I said as much. He replied that I would be receiving training in the subject. They needed a new representative to the unit, and I had the test scores and the rank. Now, this is where the story takes a turn. Up to now, I still had no clue what I would do if I exited the service. That college aid was still there, but for what, right?
I entered the first day of the training, and there was a poster on the wall in the back of the room. It said, “The Periodic Table of the Elements.” This was my first close-up look at Mendeleev’s wondrous creation. I soon learned about all the nasty things conceived by our species to kill each other. I also learned how to test for these things and the tools used to identify the type of threat.
Here I am with my military unit. Remember kids, don’t smoke!
That old curiosity emerged, and I had to know how these test kits worked. There were tests to determine not only the type of attack, but also specifically the agent in question. This seemed mystical to me. I found myself putting up alarms that would ring, buzz or make some other obnoxious sound. Then I would test the area with solutions and paper that turned colors. I had no clue how these things worked, but they did.
After my then-girlfriend accepted my marriage proposal, I was deployed to the scenic Korean demilitarized zone. By the way, if not for this woman, I am convinced I would still be in the military shooting big guns or retired to the Ozarks cutting cordwood. It was in Korea that I looked to my education. I found myself taking courses in my spare time, anything I could get my hands on really — even a course on criminal justice and clearing houses of violent perpetrators.
Upon rotation back to the States, I decided to exit the service, go to school and get married. So, I left active duty and joined the local National Guard unit in Nashville, Tennessee. Unfortunately, I was a bit … deficient. My military service helped me get accepted, yes, but I was required to take high school remedial courses. This included introductory courses in mathematics, chemistry, physics and grammar. Realizing exactly how little education I had received up to this point was quite embarrassing really.
I then met an amazing woman, Andrienne Friedli. She is an organic chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University and the scientist who introduced me to physical organic chemistry and nonlinear optical properties of molecules. She taught us organic chemistry from the level of atoms and electrons all the way up to molecules, and she incorporated a bit of quantum mechanics through electron distributions, etc. It’s unusual for a chemistry teacher to go into this much detail. I won’t bore you too much with specifics, but it was enlightening. I joined her lab to do undergraduate research on new light-harvesting materials for solar cells. We had a blast playing Metallica, Gorillaz or anything my lab mates wanted to listen to at max volume. We could do almost anything! Photo physics, synthesis, characterization, whatever!
Sept. 11 occurred about halfway through my second year pursuing my undergraduate degree. I remember walking into the university center and asking, “What movie is that?” Right as I asked, I noticed that it was the news channel. Of course, everyone was glued to the television and ignored me. Well, I knew I would be getting a call to return to active duty soon, which I did. I was given 48 hours to report to my unit. Unfortunately, there was nothing the officer could do about my courses. At that time, I wasn’t allowed to withdraw or take an incomplete. F’s all around. HA! That hurt the old GPA, didn’t it? If not for a heroic JAG officer, I would have had to start paying back my student loans.
After this deployment, I returned to my good old alma mater to finish my undergraduate degree. I realized that I was going over all these speed bumps simply because of where my high school education had left me. I didn’t receive the advantages that someone who had gone to a more affluent or even populated school district would have had. I don’t even want to get into the injustice as to why a school’s quality should be dependent on the local property values. I also realized that science education in general, not just chemistry, is considered to be of lesser importance in a large majority of secondary schools. I don’t believe this to be a matter of design; it is one more of culture and economics. People from backgrounds like mine tend to be more concerned with practicality — tech jobs, for example — than higher education, for the most part.
At my Ph.D. graduation with Professor Zhao standing behind me. I never thought I would end up here!
With a little urging from Friedli, I took the GRE and went to graduate school at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, UT for short. (Yes, UT; it is older than the one in Texas.) There, I had a tough adviser, Bin Zhao, who really pushed us. Zhao firmly wanted us all to teach. Turned out, this was a fantastic way of doing things that gave his students an amazing foundation in the fundamentals. I also discovered my love for teaching. It can be much more difficult than research.
I started teaching online as well. I found people like myself who were trying to improve themselves and overcome a less than adequate secondary education. I like to believe my life experiences helped me to connect with the students and assuage their preconceived notions about science, and about chemistry professors in particular. Some of the stereotypes they had would split your gut with laughter, in my opinion. “Socially inept weirdo” was probably the most charitable!
My desire to encourage more students to leave high school with at least a rudimentary understanding of chemistry and science has only increased since. After my Ph.D. defense, where they kept me in the hall sweating for 45 minutes, I took an interim position at UT while I looked for a job. One day, I received a phone call from Jeffrey Gilman at NIST. I had a good interview over the phone and relocated to NIST’s campus in Gaithersburg, Maryland, as a Georgetown University postdoctoral guest researcher.
Here, I rediscovered my long-lost chemical weapons sensors. I had come full circle in my scientific career and was again working with fluorophores and their nonlinear photophysical properties. At NIST, I am surrounded by the most brilliant people. I can’t throw a stick without hitting an expert in something. I have been mentored by incredibly insightful people and have grown as a scientist because of it. I feel truly blessed for my time at NIST thus far and have no desire to leave. It has been a winding, but amazing, road, and I wouldn’t take back a single step.
I would leave you with this one comment. Give back what and when you can. There are a lot of brilliant, talented people in this country who are trying to beat the odds, and they could use some help, in the classroom or even just a word of advice or encouragement. They could be a dairy farmer, a store clerk, or the individual handing you a soda in the drive-through. The only difference between you and them is that they have not been told what their options are, much less how to pursue them, and they’re slipping through the cracks. If you live in a rural or other area where the science education is lacking, join the school board or go to meetings and advocate for improvement. If you’re a scientist or technical person, consider teaching a class here and there or do some tutoring for disadvantaged students. I believe that if we all try just a little, it can do wonders.
This post originally appeared on Taking Measure, the official blog of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on June 25, 2019.
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About the Author
Jeremiah Woodcock received his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee Knoxville in the area of environmentally responsive polymers. His current work focuses on fluorescent molecular probes applied to the development of new metrologies for materials. In addition, he remains an educator by teaching chemistry online for Tennessee. In his spare time, he enjoys golf and playing with his little girls.