Leigh Ann Pennington looks at changes in ORISE after a 32-year career

March 26, 2024

Data is vital to the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). The information collected from participants and mentors is used to calculate metrics to measure if organizational objectives are on track. During her career with ORISE, Leigh Ann Pennington has helped study this data to ensure the efficacy of ORISE’s goals.

Leigh Ann Pennington looks at changes in ORISE after a 32-year career

Leigh Ann Pennington

Before her retirement in February 2024 after 32 years with ORISE, Pennington served as a key member of a team working to implement a data use strategy for STEM workforce development. This data use strategy focuses on showing how ORISE is impacting the STEM pipeline by assessing current science and technology labor trends; the administration of research participation and Science, Technology, and Policy participant programs; and measuring program performance to develop tomorrow’s STEM workforce.

“My role within ORISE really had two prongs. My formal education and training was as a labor economist, and I have been involved in several projects that study how scientists and engineers are educated, trained and advance professionally,” Pennington said. “As a social scientist, using data to help understand the science and engineering workforce led me to the second prong of my work—looking at the data we need to collect, maintain and curate to allow the calculation of metrics that will measure whether our objectives are on track.”

Before coming to ORISE, Pennington earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and economics from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in economics from Vanderbilt University. Even in graduate school she had an abiding interest in labor economics, interning with the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The department calculates state and county unemployment rates every month.

“When those figures were released each month, the department held a press conference with the media to announce these new rates. If the unemployment rate went up or down much, it was our job to answer questions from the media about why that was,” she said. “It was very exciting and a little scary.”

The implementation of online application tracking systems has offered both new challenges and new rewards for Pennington. “The most challenging time was when our workforce development programs offered both paper and online applications as pulling information together from two different collection methods was a struggle and not very efficient or effective,” she said. “Now we have to be careful that we are good stewards of the electronic data we collect—that we only collect the data that we are authorized to collect and need to administer our programs, and that we protect each individual’s privacy. This is really an important and new challenge that all businesses face today if they collect data from stakeholders and customers.”

Pennington said one of the greatest rewards of her job was the knowledge that ORISE workforce development programs could change a participant’s life and career. “I have been lucky enough to meet hundreds of energetic and bright scientists and engineers during their formal education, as well as early in their careers as they were developing their professional paths,” she said. “It is exciting to think about what their future will hold and all that they will accomplish.”

And now that she is retired, she is happy to settle into new hobbies and new adventures. “I love helping animals in our community, especially cats that often get less attention and fewer resources than those crazy dogs,” she said. “I also plan to get outside more and exercise more. Both of these areas have really been neglected over the last 32 years. I hope it is not too late to catch up.”

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The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) asset that is dedicated to enabling critical scientific, research, and health initiatives of the department and its laboratory system by providing world class expertise in STEM workforce development, scientific and technical reviews, and the evaluation of radiation exposure and environmental contamination.

ORISE is managed by ORAU, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, for DOE’s Office of Science. The single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.osti.gov.