Where are they now? Dee-Dee James
Twenty-five years of ORISE: one woman's journey through adversity, science and achievement
When Dee-Dee James applied for an information technology (IT) position at Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU), she believed that she was making an important move in her career. Little did James know that her soon-to-be employer would provide her with more than just a new job. ORAU had in fact already made a profound impact on her life 25 years before.
ORAU has been working with government agencies, universities and corporate entities since 1946 to advance science in the United States. ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), which is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) asset dedicated to enabling critical scientific research and STEM workforce development.
In 1992, ORISE was established and began administering programs and activities on behalf of DOE. That very same year, James took part in MathQuest, a summer education program for junior high students designed to teach students about science and math in nontraditional settings.
When James came onboard with ORAU as an employee in the fall of 2017 and learned more about the management of ORISE, she wondered if the company had any association with the program she attended when she was young. While looking through a previous ORISE Impact Report, James flipped a page and gazed in utter disbelief. She was staring at her own photograph. “I was shocked—wait, that’s my picture!” James recalled. The photo had been taken of James when she was in seventh grade attending MathQuest.
The two-week program took place at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. During the program, James was able to explore science and mathematics in unconventional ways, including trips to a waterpark to measure wave pools and slides, and a racetrack to solve problems of speed and velocity.
James attended MathQuest upon the recommendation of her math teacher. During the program and for most of her childhood, James lived at the former Christenberry Heights public housing development in Knoxville with her mother, three sisters, and brother. At the time, her mother was addicted to crack cocaine.
“My view of what I could see of life and what I was going to be was very slim,” James reflected. “During the program, I was able to get out of my environment and see something else. I didn’t really like math that much, but I liked solving problems. After the program, I started thinking about what kind of problems I could solve. Soon I was fixing my mom’s car, then I was fixing our VCR (videocassette recorder), then I wanted not only to solve problems but to understand how things worked… my curiosity was sparked.”
During high school, James took as many technical courses as she could, as well as completing four years in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. She planned to attend boot camp for the U.S. Navy on immediately following her graduation from high school, but her plans changed when she gave birth to her first child. While James put herself through school at ITT Technical Institute, she worked for the Boys and Girls Club and completed several IT internships with different companies, learning coding and other technical skills.
After becoming certified through ITT Technical Institute, James held positions in IT services at Elavon and US Bank. During her combined 11 years at Elavon and US Bank, James earned several awards, including the Pinnacle Award, which is the highest achievement award for Elavon employees. At US Bank, James developed a new method called the “Clear and Simple Plan,” which simplified the billing process for small businesses, a system that is still used at all US Bank offices across the nation.
When reflecting on her life and career, James remarks on the lasting impact ORISE left on her through the MathQuest program. “The program definitely set the foundation for me. Who would have thought that I would loop back around and work for the folks who introduced me to STEM and information technology,” James said. “It’s like I started in one place, but I had to go on all these detours to not only appreciate where I am now but be prepared for where I am now.”
James continues to enjoy her position at ORAU, where she has already made significant contributions. She shares life with her three children, who are 20, 18, and 16. Her older son works as a skilled carpenter, her daughter attends East Tennessee State University with plans on becoming a cardiac surgeon, and her younger son aspires to join the military. Her mother has since recovered from cocaine addiction and is now one of the foremost drug counselors in the Knoxville area.
James reflected, “Anything in my past, whether it’s good or bad has made me who I am today. Now I teach my children as they grow up, nothing is given to you. Don’t ever let your situation define your destination. There is nothing you cannot do.”
MathQuest was a program administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.