Heather Hunt

Current Position: Post-doctoral Scholar at University of Southern California
Her job: Post-doctoral Scholar, University of Southern California
Describe what you do in your current work situation? I am a researcher in the field of biophotonics, which is the intersection of light and biology. The work I do is primarily chemistry and materials development. I explore the relationships between the surface chemistry, structure, and physical properties of advanced materials that can be used in optics, electronics, and environmental applications. Specifically, I work with a unique type of sensor device that can be used for medical diagnostics (for instance, to test if there are certain disease markers in a sample). These devices have high sensitivity (even down to the single molecule level!), but they are not specific. That is, they are not able to accurately detect one type of biological entity versus another. So, I am investigating and developing new ways to make these sensors detect only specific biological components, while at the same time, making sure that they remain highly sensitive.
Why did you choose engineering? I chose engineering because I loved how math and science interconnected, and I wanted the opportunity to be able to help my community directly. Engineers provide the infrastructure of society, and can impact so many people very easily. We're unique in that we truly have the opportunity to lead society into a sustainable future by the things we do as engineers. Very few careers have that kind of opportunity.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have? I went to Iowa State University, where I earned my Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering. After that, I attended graduate school at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, California, where I earned my Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy degrees.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work? As a Post-doctoral scholar, I do a mix of things. I pursue my own research in our laboratory, I mentor and train both undergraduate and graduate students, and I act as the lab manager, which means that I make sure everything is going smoothly for our students, and help out when it isn't. Sometimes this means I fix very expensive pieces of equipment, and sometimes it means handling administrative tasks to keep the group running efficiently. The best part about my current position is that I have a chance to both mentor and teach (as a guest lecturer) students here at the university.
What do you like best about being an engineer? I like seeing a project come to life - to take something from an idea or theory and actually make it physically, then test it to see how it works. It's kind of like being able to play all day, but with expensive toys and the joy of knowing that what we're making could someday change the world.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of? I'm very, very proud of earning my Ph.D. at Caltech, and winning a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship during that time.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career? Interestingly, the greatest challenge when you go to graduate school is your ability to do excellent research. What most people who don't have a career in research don't realize is how difficult it can be to make things work on a research project. It takes a lot of patience and perseverance to finally make everything work, and of course, it takes a lot of knowledge about the science and theory of what you're doing.
Please tell us a little about your family. My husband is also a chemical engineer (we met in college), but he works in the finance industry as a Chartered Financial Analyst. My parents, who live in Iowa, are both scientists by training. My mom has a degree in computer science, and my dad has a degree in physics. They both earned their undergraduate degrees when I was very young, while they both worked full-time, so they were great role models who showed me the importance of a good education, even if it meant a lot of hard work. In fact, they joke that I started my college education when I was a baby – they sometimes had to bring me to class when they couldn’t find a babysitter. I also have two older siblings; my sister is a civil engineer for an environmental consulting firm, and my brother is a sales executive for a professional sports team.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals? I'm pursuing a career in academia, and hope to find a tenure-track faculty position where I can pursue interesting research, mentor great students, and be an excellent teacher.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices? My parents and the faculty at Iowa State have had the greatest influence on me. My parents taught me to work hard, and to never take for granted the chances I was given. The ISU faculty opened up my eyes to all the things that engineers could do, and really supported me through my undergraduate and graduate education. They've been wonderful role models and friends.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering? I would suggest taking as many math and science classes as possible, and to volunteer with local engineering companies to get a feel for what being an engineer is like. I also recommend getting involved with groups that promote women going into engineering - for instance, many Girl Scout troops have science and engineering activities, and have connections with universities and companies. Additionally, there are a lot of after-school and summer programs run by groups like Women in Science and Engineering that can really help you decide which type of engineer you'd like to be. Search out opportunities to expand your knowledge, and have fun while doing it!
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book. I have a lot of hobbies, so I don't do any of them as much as I would like. I really enjoy hiking and camping, so I've been to a lot of National Parks with my friends and family. I'm not a great athlete, but I really enjoy training for and running triathlons, especially since my husband has recently taken up running marathons for fun. I also really enjoy scrapbooking all the pictures we take doing everything, and reading as many books as I can. I'm definitely a fan of mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy, although I'm starting to like a lot of history books as well. We also have two wonderful cats who like to play in cardboard boxes, so they keep us on our toes a lot. Lastly, I like to do a lot of community service. For the last few years, I've volunteered with a local group (the Caltech Animal Team) which helps the Caltech community of students, faculty, and staff with their pets, and provides resources for rescuing pets that have been abandoned on campus. We've found a lot of abandoned pets new homes, and have helped people with everything from searching for a lost pet to help with pet care.