Amy Falcon, Ph.D., has always had a passion for science and exploration.
“My father was a middle school science teacher and would always come up with fun at-home projects to play around with, like making paper airplanes in various shapes to see how they would fly,” said Falcon.
“I wasn’t ever told ‘no, a paper airplane won’t fly like that.’ Instead it was ‘go ahead and try, see what it does!’ This encouraged me to pursue science because in my mind, it didn’t matter if the project didn’t work out the way I wanted to, I would still learn something, make it better for the next time and have fun while doing it.”
Falcon’s interest in science continued to grow, leading her to pursue degrees in Wood Science and Technology and Forest Resource Science. After graduating from West Virginia University with her doctoral degree in 2016, Falcon took some of her first steps toward building her career by participating in a fellowship with the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).
The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) offers opportunities to participate in energy-related research. NETL’s mission is to strengthen our nation’s security, to improve our nation’s environment and to advance energy options that fuel our nation’s economy. To complement this mission, ORISE offers educational programs that help to ensure that NETL has a robust supply of scientists and engineers to meet its future science and technology needs.
“I applied for the ORISE program as an opportunity to expand my learning and knowledge base,” said Falcon. “My background is in renewable energy and sustainability, and I wanted to see if there was a way I could take fossil energy resources and apply a renewable-based mindset to extend the life of our finite resources and use them in new and beneficial ways.”
During her appointment, Falcon conducted research as part of the Rare Earth Elements program and the Sensors and Controls program. Under the guidance of her co-mentors, Jim Poston and Ben Chorpening, Ph.D., Falcon was involved in various research and development projects including utilizing cathodoluminescence spectroscopy to identify the location and distribution of material phases contained in coal fly-ash that contain rare earth elements (REEs).
Rare earth elements are a group of seventeen chemical elements that occur together in the periodic table. They are used to produce a variety of products, including electrical and electronic components, lasers, glass and magnetic materials. Falcon’s research aimed to condense REEs into a more concentrated form in order to determine a practical solution to extract REEs from the fly-ash.
“REEs are used in such a wide array of products that are essential to the economy and national security,” explained Falcon. “Our project has a ton of potential to provide for the energy independence and stability of the United States. The ability to domestically produce these rare earth elements in economically viable methods could significantly impact and boost our economy and the security of our country.”
During her time with ORISE at NETL, Falcon developed skills that she has continued to use throughout her career. Most importantly, she learned how to interact with a wide variety of personalities and attitudes, as well as how communicate more effectively between technical and non-technical subjects.
“My experience at NETL directly impacted my current career because it allowed me to gain experience and have access to the operation and function of the national laboratory,” said Falcon. “I am able to utilize the soft skills I developed to work with a wide variety of research projects, scientists and engineers; both from universities and companies nationwide.”
Falcon currently works as a project manager in the Buildings Technology Office (BTO) within the Energy Efficiency division at NETL, under the guidance of Hank Hinkle and her new mentor Joel Chaddock. Her new position allows her to have a hand in a wide variety of projects, and her favorite part is that there is always a new technology to learn, a new person to collaborate with and information to be shared.
Her advice to current students considering pursuing a career in STEM?
“STEM is a great opportunity to encounter many different people and ideas,” said Falcon.
“There are never two days alike. Even if you find you don’t care for one area of research, there are so many more options that you can get involved in, and there is something for everyone. I would recommend that you try the ORISE program; the research is always adapting and evolving and participants are encouraged to learn and discover throughout the entire program.”
The NETL internship programs are administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE is managed for DOE by Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU).