March 1, 2024
Staff Accomplishment

Curiosity and Courage Leads to Career in Nuclear Materials

Isabella van Rooyen shares her journey from child to internationally recognized scientist

Isabella J van Rooyen

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory celebrates Women's History Month, sharing Isabella van Rooyen's accomplishments as an internationally recognized expert in advanced materials systems. 

(Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) 

Isabella van Rooyen, senior technical advisor for advanced material systems at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) was raised in the rural town of Tuinplaas, South Africa, located about 100 miles away from Johannesburg. When she was a child, she would lie down on the lawn and watch clouds pass by with her mother, a former schoolteacher.

“My mother pushed me to always explore and reach beyond my imagination. In material sciences, we try not to limit our view of the materials we can use because we can always design materials and manufacture them in different ways,” she said. “So, although my work is hard, fast, and often analytical, when I look at microstructures, I always see beyond the hard science facts—just as I did when I would see shapes in the clouds.”

Today, van Rooyen is an internationally recognized leader in materials sciences, engineering, and manufacturing for nuclear energy systems. She holds six patents with several more applications under review, serves on international committees and boards, and has received numerous recognitions in her lifetime. This Women’s History Month, she is sharing her journey and providing wisdom to women interested in paving their way into a typically male-saturated industry.

“My career is a hybrid between two cross-cutting areas, including the deep nitty gritty questions of basic science and the applied science space,” van Rooyen said. “Working in nuclear energy can have a major impact on humankind by providing clean energy—something we all need—and doing it safely, which is very important to me.”

Making her way into material sciences and manufacturing

Van Rooyen always took interest in science, geography, and mathematics. When the time came to explore college opportunities, she reached out to her uncle, a trained geologist. They spoke about extractive metallurgy and although she wasn’t interested in pursuing that career path, it led her to the decision of studying metallurgical engineering at the University of Pretoria.

“I wanted to combine my fascination of chemistry, physics, mathematics, and geology,” van Rooyen said.

However, not everyone believed or supported the goals she set for herself. Van Rooyen was a top performer in her school but when she shared her future plans with her teacher, she was met with a response she’ll never forget, “what is this nonsense you are talking about?”

Van Rooyen became one of the first students in her school’s history to attain a PhD. Eventually, she joined the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor Company and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa. Her experience at these research organizations opened way for a move to the United States to contribute to the nuclear energy mission of the Department of Energy (DOE) at national laboratories, including Idaho National Laboratory and now PNNL. At PNNL she is the materials development technical area lead for the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy’s Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies program, amongst other materials research enabled by advanced manufacturing techniques.

Isabella van Rooyen in front of equipment
Isabella van Rooyen (left) gives a tour of the Solid Phase Processing Demonstration Facility to Lori Braase (right), industry engagement executive for Idaho National Laboratory's nuclear mission and senior advisor for the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear during a visit to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in 2023. (Photo courtesy of Isabella van Rooyen | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Van Rooyen’s tips for women in manufacturing

Van Rooyen has overcome many barriers in her educational and career journey. She is transforming the obstacles into lessons for women and underrepresented groups:

“Role models in my career have taught that imagination and innovation does not have barriers; that is what I am trying to live every day," said van Rooyen. “And that is what I hope to teach, especially this Women’s History Month.”

Tip #1—Dare to Think Different

“Do not shy away from being yourself or being the only one in the room to think ‘differently.’ I have been called crazy. I have been made fun of for my ideas by professors and peers in the past. Sometimes it has been hard, but it also created a drive in me. I know my ideas—however unconventional they are—can help an organization, humankind, or even just one person. Your different viewpoint, even if it is not at that point accepted, can be giving thought for something else that can be formed into an acceptable idea or discovery one day.”

Tip #2—Build a Team

“Build a collaborative team of ‘glass half full’ thinkers. Bring collaborators on board who believe in your vision. Sometimes it will be easy to get people to see and join your vision, other times it might not. But even if you start with one collaborator, then you get two collaborators, then three—just keep on going.”

Tip #3—Never Give Up and Have Fun

“Tune out the noise and focus on what you want to achieve. Believe that anything can be done and then make it happen, not accepting the barriers. If it doesn’t go how you expect, find a different way. Always have a plan A, B, C, and D. And lastly, do projects that you believe in and have fun while doing it.”

Women in STEM

Isabella van Rooyen presents near PowerPoint slides to group of people in audience
In 2023, Isabella van Rooyen presented at the Generation IV International Forum's Senior Industry Advisory Panel session at the Advanced Manufacturing and Materials Engineering World Nuclear Exhibition in Paris, France. (Photo courtesy of Isabella van Rooyen | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Van Rooyen wants spaces in science, technology, engineering, and math to continue making room for women’s voices and inclusivity. 

“I am grateful for the many opportunities I have been given over the years and wish those opportunities for my colleagues as well,” van Rooyen said. “Women’s contributions to science are so important as we offer many different perspectives, skills, and talents.”

Van Rooyen was recently invited to give plenary talks and appointed to several leadership roles, including: