Geochemist Frannie Smith would like to see more girls get into science like she did. Women make up only about 25 percent of geoscientists in the U.S. and only a quarter of all the scientists or engineers at the Pacific Northwest National Lab in Washington state are female.
Smith knew she liked science early in life. It was kindergarten. Her teacher Mrs. Goldberg was teaching a song about dinosaurs.
It went, “Tyrannosaurus Rex he was so very cruel he’d like to come right over now and eat us after school.”
That ditty locked Smith fast onto dinosaurs. Later, she discovered volcanoes. But what really cinched science, was when her fifth-grade class learned about rapidly disappearing rainforests.
“And just knowing something in my gut that there wasn’t something right about that,” Smith said. “And just feeling like we shouldn’t do this we should be more careful with, with our resources.”
Helping to make nuclear energy sustainable
Now a Ph.D. in geology, Smith studies the long-term storage of nuclear materials at the Pacific Northwest National Lab in Richland, Washington.
“What I do is understand how radioactive materials behave in the environment,” Smith explained. “So that we can safely store nuclear materials to help make nuclear energy sustainable.”
At Hanford, she studies how certain radioactive particles like plutonium or technetium are attracted to different surfaces. She says think of a sock sticking to pants, just out of the dryer. That’s like uranium particles sticking to a metal tank or the surface of a rock.
There are many different types of radioactive contamination at Hanford. It’s all from plutonium production during World War II and the Cold War.
“I hope that we can do our part to return the Hanford site to as much of a natural state as possible,” Smith said. “While still remembering all the science and engineering that went on there.”
The radioactive contaminants at Hanford all move differently underground. And Smith’s goal is to keep that radioactive stuff out of the Columbia River.
Science in the community
Smith spends most of her time modeling scenarios on a supercomputer. But she believes science cannot live only in computers and labs and says it’s crucial for big brains to get out into communities where decisions are made.
“In today’s society, we have to make decisions all together about what we are going to do with this type of material,” Smith said.
So she does a lot of talks and meets a lot of teachers. She also wants to see more girls get interested in science and Hanford.
Smith remembers a couple of years ago when a teacher showed Smith’s picture in front of a class. The teacher was explaining rocks and minerals. One little girl raised her hand saying she didn’t see a geologist in the picture.
“The teacher said, ‘Right there,’ and she pointed to my picture to the students,” Smith recalled. “And the girl said, ‘You mean the geologist was a girl!?’”
Smith said that’s the real power of showing students who scientists and engineers are in their own community. That way children -- especially girls -- can start to see themselves in that role too.
Photography by Kai-Huei Yau, audio and story by Anna King, design by Doug Gast. Family photos courtesy of Frannie Smith.