Erin Webb, Ph.D., developed a love of math and biology in high school, but at the time she wasn’t sure if a STEM career was right for her.
That all changed the summer before her junior year, when she participated in a two-week science honors academy for high school students at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The program, funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), allowed Webb to research fracture mechanics in ceramics under the guidance of ORNL mentor Andrew A. Wereszczak, Ph.D.
Her time in the ARC program proved pivotal as she progressed academically.
“As a first-generation college student, with little exposure to science or engineering careers, that experience (at ORNL) made a STEM career seem approachable to me in a way it never had before,” Webb recalled.
During her time as an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, she discovered the field of agricultural engineering, which combined her interests in math and biology with her experience growing up on a farm in East Tennessee.
Webb went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering at UT, a master’s degree in biosystems and agricultural engineering from the University of Kentucky, and a doctorate in agricultural and biological engineering from the University of Florida.
Now, as a senior research and development staff member in the Environmental Sciences Division at ORNL, Webb mentors research participants in programs administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), a U.S. Department of Energy entity managed by ORAU.
“Mentoring students is not only important for my project work, but also for my own career development,” she said. “Students bring energy and new ideas to my research team. Mentoring gives me an opportunity to build my leadership and management skills.”
Webb’s research team focuses on developing feedstock, which includes the stalks and leaves of corn plants, as a viable energy source. “We work on reducing risk, cost and environmental impacts of expanding the bioeconomy to create value-added fuels and materials from plants,” she explained.
ORISE participants under Webb’s guidance are assigned research projects, and they collaborate with Webb and others on her team. Webb and her participants meet each week to review their progress on their projects and any challenges encountered. They also have weekly discussions on a paper from a scientific journal.
As a mentor, Webb draws upon her own experience as a former research participant.
“I’ve had several great mentors in my career,” she said. “What I remember most is how they challenged me. If someone just tells me I’m doing a great job all the time, it means they aren’t looking carefully. But if someone takes the time to really review my work and challenge me, it means a lot. My mentors saw more in me than I did. Their confidence in me is often what encouraged me to keep going.
“The best way I can think of to honor their investment in me is to pay it forward and mentor students myself,” she said.
Webb’s favorite part of mentorship is seeing her participants achieve their goals.
She points to the story of Justine O’Dell, one of her former participants in the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program, who took a job at NASA in mission control for the International Space Station after graduation.
As part of her interview with NASA, O’Dell had to give a presentation, so she delivered the mini-talk on her research she developed during her SULI experience.
For Webb, it’s moments like that that make mentorship worthwhile.