How She Got There: Stacy Copp, Soft Matter Physicist & L'Oreal USA For Women in Science Fellow

Name: Stacy Copp
Job Title & Description: Postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Soft matter physicist
College & Major: University of Arizona (BS Physics and Mathematics) and University of California – Santa Barbara (Ph.D. Physics)
Website: lanl.academia.edu/StacyCopp

It's undeniable that our lives wouldn't be the same without the perpetual innovation behind STEM industries. We aren't the only ones who agree because the L'Oreal USA For Women in Science fellowship has been helping skilled women in STEM advance their research. Offering millions of dollars in grants since 2003, L'Oreal's postdoctoral fellowship program also implements necessary representation in multiple STEM fields, where women are often underrepresented (particularly at the postdoctoral level). Thankfully, we were able to talk to one of the 2018 L'Oreal USA For Women in Science fellows, Stacy Copp, about her research in new materials and how mimicking certain aspects of biology could be a key component to our future technology. 

Her Campus: What does your current job entail? Is there such a thing as a typical day? In your opinion, what is the best part of your job?

Stacy Copp: I am currently researching ways to create new materials that generate and/or control light. I have always been inspired by the elegant ways that biology can do this. In photosynthesis, for instance, light is converted into the energy that plants and algae need to grow and thrive. If humans could make new materials that mimic aspects of what biology does so well, we could revolutionize technologies in energy and medicine. The best part of my job is that I’m always learning new things. I’m trained as a physicist, but I work in a very multidisciplinary environment with chemists, computer scientists, and engineers. I love the constant challenge and being forced outside of my comfort zone because that is where I learn the most.

HC: What inspired you to apply for the L'Oréal USA For Women in Science fellowship?

SC: My Ph.D. mentor mentioned the L’Oréal USA for Women in Science fellowship to me while I was still in graduate school and told me to keep this opportunity in mind when I became a postdoctoral researcher. I am so glad I followed her advice!

HC: How will you use the fellowship grant to propel your research? Likewise, where do you hope your research and career take you after you’ve completed your fellowship?

SC: I am very excited that this fellowship will support my research expenses, including the costs of chemicals and lab supplies that I need for my work. This will allow me to take my research in some exciting new directions.

Long-term, I hope to pursue a career where I can keep doing what I love: researching new materials, constantly learning new things, and teaching and mentoring others.  I could see myself doing this either as a university professor or a national laboratory scientist.

HC: How can other college-age women encourage others to explore their passion for science and technology, particularly if they might not be well-versed in a STEM-related field themselves?

SC: I encourage everyone, regardless of your own interests, to support your peers in the education and career paths that they are excited about.  Sometimes young women pursuing STEM educations feel excluded not just by their STEM classmates but also by their friends, roommates, and coworkers outside of class. It’s so important in every part of our world to have a diverse workforce, and we can all make a positive difference in that direction by explicitly expressing our support for the educational goals of those around us.

HC: What was your first entry-level job in your field and how did you get it?

SC: My first job was a volunteer position in a research laboratory at my university. I had heard that getting involved in research as an undergraduate was a good idea, and I’m very grateful to my first research mentor for giving a freshman in college the chance to join his lab!  Undergraduate research is such a great experience for anyone interested in STEM, medicine, and other fields. Don’t be afraid to ask and apply for these opportunities!

HC: What words of wisdom (well-known quotes, an anecdote from your boss) do you find most valuable?

SC: One of my undergraduate research mentors told me to keep in mind the things in life that make me happy and to be unafraid to factor those aspects into my decision because no one who is unhappy can live up to their full potential.  Often as students and early career folks, we feel obligated to work all the time so we can be competitive for that next job or internship, but it’s also important to have other dimensions in life, whether that’s hobbies, spending time with friends and family, or volunteering for causes we care about.  Thanks to his advice, I’ve learned better how to be unafraid to prioritize my family and make time for the things I care about outside of work. 

HC: What has been the most surreal moment of your career thus far?

SC: When my daughter was 5 months old, I traveled to a conference in Finland… with husband and baby in tow!  The conference was an amazing opportunity, and while it was brutally exhausting to have my family along (babies don’t care about time zones), it was wonderful to hear so much encouragement from colleagues about our decision to come as a family. My daughter has since come to several other conferences with me and even attended a few scientific poster sessions.

HC: What do you look for when considering hiring someone?

SC: One thing I consider really important when looking to hire an undergraduate intern is a clear motivation to work hard and overcome challenges. While academic achievement can be an indicator of this, I also like to know about other challenges a student has overcome – perhaps transferring from a community college or working to pay for college. Research takes both knowledge and hard work, and it’s often much easier to teach someone the concepts she or he needs to know than to teach a good work ethic.

HC: What advice would you give to a 20-something with similar aspirations?

SC: Don’t sell yourself short. Studies show that, on average, women are much less likely to think themselves qualified for a job than men, even if they have the same skills. So learn to trust your own abilities and look for mentors who can tell you, with honesty, about your strengths as well as your weaknesses.

HC: What's the one thing that's stood out to you the most in a resume?

SC: When someone has devoted a lot of time and effort to an important cause outside of their education, this really stands out to me. I like to see that students care not just about their GPA, but also about serving their community, maybe through tutoring or helping people in need.