At the age of 13, Sophia Suarez was told she would not excel in physics because of her gender. According to her teacher, the girls would struggle because they are typically not good at math. On the first day of her ninth grade year, she looked around the room in her Jamaican high school physics class and noticed few female peers.
“I got upset and made it my goal to prove that man wrong,” Suarez said. “I also wanted to get a degree higher than whatever he had, so I decided to get a Ph.D. in physics right at that moment.” Several years and multiple degrees later, Suarez accomplished just that.
Now, as a faculty member at the City University of New York, Suarez allows students to learn without the limitations of gender roles.
To further develop her skills, she spent her summer researching as a participant in the Visiting Faculty Program (VFP) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The program is sponsored by the Department of Energy Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) and is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, managed by ORAU.
During her 10-week appointment, Suarez, alongside her mentor, Dr. Brad Lokitz, researched carbon dioxide (CO2) absorption materials at the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences at ORNL using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy techniques. This method utilizes magnetic properties to determine structural details of compounds.
“CO2 production is a worldwide problem,” Suarez explained. “Current CO2 absorption technologies are costly and often require large energy needs for CO2 release. Better absorption materials are needed, and I want to contribute to their realization.”
More CO2 in the atmosphere causes heat to be absorbed by the Earth’s surface, leading to an overall temperature increase.
A typical day for Suarez involved running experiments, reviewing the results and writing publications and proposals while continuing to help with the department needs of her home institution. Having freedom as well as resources such as materials, equipment and a qualified research staff allowed Suarez to manage her many responsibilities while furthering her project.
“I want to publish the results of this work,” Suarez said. “I also want to continue working on the project and apply for external funding so that I can hire a post-doctoral student for my research laboratory.”
As she looks to the future, Suarez hopes to become both a full professor and a fully funded researcher. She plans to use her knowledge and experience to host STEM students of all education levels in her own laboratory.
Recognizing the value of her summer program, Suarez said, “Having programs like the VFP to help faculty like me who oftentimes lag in their research aspirations because of factors such as heaving teaching loads and lack of funding, is very necessary.”