Meet a Scientist: Stephanie Laughton
Jun 19
2019

Meet a Scientist: Stephanie Laughton

By Dr. Maria Wheeler-Dubas, Research and Science Education Outreach Manager

All of the researchers featured on our Meet a Scientist Saturdays have received public engagement training through Phipps’ science communication workshops. If you are faculty, post-doc, graduate student or other professional in the sciences and you are interested in the workshop or participating in a Meet a Scientist Saturday, check out our website or email science education outreach manager Dr. Maria Wheeler-Dubas at mwheeler-dubas@phipps.conservatory.org.

We humans need our vitamins and nutrients, so we all do our best to eat a variety of foods to make sure we stay healthy. But have you ever thought about the vitamins and nutrients that plants need to grow healthy and strong? This month’s Meet a Scientist studies just that! Stephanie Laughton, engineering doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University, researches how to deliver nutrients to crops using tiny particles (nano-particles). Intrigued? Be sure to stop by the Tropical Forest on Saturday, June 22, from 1:30-3:30 p.m., to ask her all about her work!

Introduce yourself in 5 sentences or less

My name is Stephanie Laughton and I am an environmental engineer working on my Ph.D at Carnegie Mellon. I research the interactions of metallic nanoparticles and plants to determine what happens to the particles after they are applied. My coworkers and I use a wide range of techniques we are developing in order to detect and characterize the particles while they are in complex materials (such as plant tissues or soil samples).

Why did you become a scientist?

I did not have a very linear path to environmental engineering, but looking back, I can see how everything fit together.  In grade school, I was pretty good at math and science which led me to apply to the engineering school when I went to college. In my first year, I kept changing my mind as to what type of engineer I wanted to be but ultimately I decided to go into environmental engineering. I am not an "outdoor" type of person which seems to be a common theme in how/why people choose to go into environmental engineering. I did have a class in college where I had to put on waders and take measurements in the middle of a stream which is a fond memory, but not the main reason I ended up where I am. Instead, I think I came into environmental engineering and my current work through a love of food and baking. Making a cake is a lot like the chemistry that I do in the lab, chemicals (like ingredients) must be added in just the right amount and at just the right time to ensure that your experiment (or your cake) turns out properly. My work now lets me not only work with "recipes" in the lab but also to contribute to the safety of the foods we all eat by investigating how plants and nanoparticles interact.

What is the most exciting thing you’ve ever done at work?

The research center that I am affiliated with has this large facility with "mesocosms" which are like giant aquariums where we set up small wetland ecosystems so we can see how nanoparticles transform and move between water, soil, plants, and animals. It was totally out of my comfort zone, but when it comes to the final "harvest" of the boxes, I had to go help catch all the fish and insects that were inside. It was fun, but dirty, work and I definitely gained an appreciation for all that my ecology focused co-workers do on a day-to-day basis.

What skills do you use at your job?

I use a lot of basic math and chemistry knowledge at work. I use a type of mass spectroscopy equipment called an ICP-MS which relies on your knowledge of elements and their isotopes to be able to quantify the metals in my samples. With the "single particle" analysis methods for the ICP-MS, I have to use a lot of statistical analysis knowledge in order to process data sets of thousands of particles to determine if the size distributions and compositions are different or not. Even for the microscopes I use, I need a good understanding of physics to understand how the light waves are changing and what that change means. Most of these skills I acquired while in high school and have just narrowed the way that I apply them as my schooling became more advanced.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I get to have conversations daily with my coworkers and collaborators about topics that matter and can change the world. Nanoparticles are used in a wide range of industries, including as agrochemicals, and to think that my work, in some small way, may be able to help make these industries safer, if necessary, is an incredible feeling. Since nanoparticles are used in so many fields, I have gained a bit of functional knowledge not only in environmental engineering, but also in agriculture, material science, and public policy, to name a few.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?

I am honestly not sure. All of the "back up careers" that come to mind are still in some way tied to science (i.e. high school science teacher, nurse, architect). I guess at one point I thought about being a book editor which would generally not have anything to do with science.

What would you say to other scientists to encourage them to get involved in outreach?

Science outreach is a great way to help the community understand what you do. As someone that works with materials that have gotten mixed reviews in the press, I enjoy being able to interact with the general public and help clarify some of their misconceptions. It is a great way to practice how to break down the complex terminology that we use within the field to give others a peek into our newest discoveries and how "science" works.

This Saturday, June 22, come meet Stephanie Laughton in the Tropical Forest from 1:30 - 3:30!


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