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Spotlight on Commerce: Laura Espinal, Materials Scientist, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

Blog post by Laura Espinal, Materials Scientist, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

I was born in Caracas, Venezuela. I am the oldest of three sisters, raised in a home filled with great appreciation for Latin music. I learned very early on that music brings friends and family together. At home, my dad played the cuatro all the time. (The cuatro is an instrument with four strings that is similar to a ukulele). When friends visited, guitars came along. Even now, I listen to Latin music everywhere I go. And while I never learned how to play guitar, I keep three guitars at home hoping that one day, one day for sure, I will get the chance to learn. I never lose hope!  

I immigrated to the United States in 2000 to attend graduate school. During the first few years, I visited my home country very often. While the frequency of my visits has diminished over time, listening to Latin music remains my way to stay connected and has even become part of my life at work. Driving to work? Check. Working in the lab? Check. Writing papers? Check. And when I manage to go the gym? Check that one, too. A few months ago, I received a very nice invitation. I was asked to help celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month at NIST. When the idea of coordinating a Latin music performance was proposed, I was very excited, and shortly after we came up with “Música Under the Stars,” an event that I now can’t wait to attend.

So how did this music-loving Latin scientist end up NIST? It all began after I received my Ph.D. in materials science at the University of Connecticut. As a recent graduate, I worked in the private sector in Boston, Massachusetts. I loved my job, but when my husband graduated a few years later, finding a job in the same location became our new dream … and our full-time job. In 2008, he received a good offer in Maryland, an area that also had great career opportunities in my field. So I made what felt like a wild move at the time. I left my job. Exciting, yes, but also scary. A few months later, I started at NIST. What started as a “personal” move turned out to be the best career decision I ever made. 

I spent the first few months here meeting lots of people and learning about all of the exciting research projects throughout the organization. There was something special about working here. The working environment at NIST was intellectually stimulating. Every time I met someone, I would fall in love with their project. It was fascinating. It was contagious. Everywhere I went, I heard passion for science. Eventually, I decided to pursue research in the area of adsorption sciences, a discipline that combines materials science with chemistry and physics. We would expose a material to gases, temperatures and pressures and observe the system dynamics through the eyes of different sensors: neutrons, X-rays, mass. Our research helped us to optimize the properties of exciting new materials so that industrial processes could be improved.  

Pursuing cutting-edge research that advances measurement science at NIST has been incredibly rewarding and fun. However, about a year ago, I felt that I was ready for a new challenge that would broaden my horizons. I was interested in interacting with different parts of NIST that I didn’t know well. I also became fascinated with the idea of getting experience in how policy and budgets are formulated and executed throughout the organization. I had this burning desire to better understand and advocate for the overall agency mission. Materials science was just one of many scientific disciplines advanced at NIST.  

It was around that time, while participating in one of NIST’s leadership programs, that I learned about a one-year detail opportunity as a program analyst within the Program Coordination Office. It was exactly the sort of role I was looking for. 

During the past year, I have led the review process for a prestigious internal program that funds the most innovative, high-risk and transformative measurement science ideas generated by the NIST laboratory staff. I have supported one of the teams defining key approaches to create the infrastructure for a 21st-century research institution as part of NIST’s strategic plan. And I have coordinated creative ways to engage with the community to discuss inclusivity at NIST, helping launch the first equity cafe series and taking the stage at last spring’s Inclusivity Summit to moderate a panel about this topic. I have loved every moment of my yearlong detail. 

As my assignment within the Program Coordination Office comes to an end, I am preparing to begin another detail. I will be spending the next year working closely with NIST leadership to develop new data analysis tools that will map how we interact with the goal of better assessing inclusivity at NIST. So now, as we celebrate Hispanic heritage month, I have two things to look forward to: making a difference for inclusivity at NIST and enjoying my beloved Latin beats at Música Under the Stars. 

Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting the contributions of Department of Commerce Hispanic employees in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15–October 15).

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