April 24, 2023

PNNL Scientist Inspires Next Generation at the National Science Bowl

Physicist Emily Mace invites National Science Bowl competitors to use their imaginations as she transports them 40 feet underground to PNNL’s Shallow Underground Laboratory

PNNL physicist Emily Mace holding a copper radiation detector

Physicist Emily Mace loads a copper detector full of gas into ultra-low-background counting systems. She specializes in interpreting radioactive signals such as those emitted during underground nuclear weapons tests.

(Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Physicist Emily Mace will share her science journey and an interactive presentation about her current research with middle school and high school students from across the country at the National Science Bowl (NSB), April 27 through May 1 in Washington, DC. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) expert in low-level radiation detection is one of five scientists from across the country invited to attend and talk to students about their work.

The Department of Energy (DOE) created the NSB in 1991 to encourage students to excel in mathematics and science and to pursue careers in these fields.

“I’m honored,” said Mace. “I’ve always loved science and the way it ignites a sense of curiosity that can take your career in any direction. I hope to encourage students to stay excited about what they do. I relate to that even outside of my role as a scientistevery day is a new opportunity to learn something.”

Mace has prepared a fun presentation of her research and will give students a glimpse into a unique lab space that very few have access to. Students will see themselves in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) at PNNL and use their imagination as Mace transports them 40 feet underground to the Shallow Underground Laboratory (SUL), where her research on radiation detection transpires.

Off to Science Bowl Nationals

Mace specializes in detecting extremely low levels of radiation, which can be important markers of ecological and nuclear events. She uses the laboratory’s unique ultra-sensitive radiation detectors and PNNL’s SUL to uncover insights about a wide range of phenomena. Mace specializes in measuring argon-37, which can indicate nuclear test activity, and argon-39, which can be used to understand groundwater recharge rates. These isotopes can be extremely difficult to measure at atmospheric levels because of their low natural abundance.

In October 2022, Mace hosted DOE Office of Science, National Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow Laura Akesson for a tour of the Shallow Underground Laboratory. The two scientists connected through their passion for physics, as Akesson had been an AP and honors physics teacher to students in grades 11 and 12. PNNL’s Office of STEM Education introduced Akesson to the lab’s research capabilities, STEM outreach efforts, Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists interns, Student STEM Ambassadors program, and the STEM Ambassador program in which Mace participates.

Since then, Mace was invited to the National Science Bowl. Her tour with Akkeson serves as inspiration for connecting with youth and sharing her research. Mace has been immersed in learning more about the competition and students participating. Last month, she attended the Regional Science Bowl at Columbia Basin College and hosted by PNNL. She is excited to use what she learned and help volunteer for the NSB after her presentations.

Students from Telsa High School win the Regional Science Bowl 2023
PNNL organized the Regional DOE Science Bowl on February 25, 2023, hosted at Columbia Basin College. Tesla High School took home the trophy. They’ll travel this spring to Washington, DC for the national competition. (Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

See yourself in STEM at PNNL

Students at the NSB will dive into Mace’s research in full gear. “I am going to invite them to tour the underground with me,” said Mace. She’ll walk them through the process of putting on a full cleanroom suit, also known as a bunny suit, and the importance of maintaining a clean environment in the SUL. Students will participate in the presentation while wearing most of the bunny suit.

“In the lab, we represent one of the biggest hazards to low-background detectors. I want them to know why it matters to the science to suit up and give them practical knowledge too. A single fingerprint could ruin an entire experiment,” said Mace.

Once students are dressed for the lab, she’ll take them on a journey through the science. The SUL supports many areas of research, including fundamental physics, environmental science, and national security. She’ll talk about the collaboration that occurs in a national lab setting, bringing together researchers of all fields to advance science in multiple areas. However, the focus will be on the use of copper detectors to measure gas signatures like argon-37 and argon-39.

Emily Mace in Shallow Underground Laboratory
Physicist Emily Mace loads a copper detector full of gas into ultra-low-background counting systems. She specializes in interpreting radioactive signals such as those emitted during underground nuclear weapons tests. (Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Inspiring the next generation

For many students, choosing an academic or career path can be frightening. While Mace always knew that she loved science, she wasn’t sure what that meant for her future and experienced challenges along the way. When Mace joined community college while still in high school, she enrolled in physics classes.

“I actually failed my first exam,” she said. “It turns out that I’m an anxious test taker, but after failing, I was hooked! I enjoyed the challenge of trying something new and different."

She hopes to connect with students and share her story as an example of how she found her path along her academic and professional journey. Mace was a sophomore undergraduate student when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 devastated the nation. After finishing her graduate program, she helped her advisors in conducting research on detecting improvised explosive devices, chemical warfare agents, and in developing advanced radiation measurements. The impact of that fateful day drove and anchored her career in national security at PNNL.

“Even though 9/11 was a horrible event, it steered the path for me,” Mace said. “The coolest part about a science career is knowing that your discoveries go beyond fundamental knowledge. The science we’re doing is being applied to real-world problems. I love knowing that the work we’re doing matters.”

She also recognizes the imbalance of women and men in STEM careers and wants to encourage female competitors to continue exploring their passion and staying involved in opportunities.

STEM education at PNNL

PNNL welcomes hundreds of high school, undergraduate, and graduate students annually through a suite of programs to develop their research skills, receive mentoring from leading experts, and grow STEM career opportunities. Interested students can learn more on the PNNL STEM Internships website. Inspiring and developing future careers in science, technology, engineering, and math is part of PNNL’s mission as a DOE national laboratory. The Regional Science Bowl is one of many efforts by the Office of STEM Education to ignite interest and build opportunities among the next generation of STEM experts.


About PNNL

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on its distinguishing strengths in chemistry, Earth sciences, biology and data science to advance scientific knowledge and address challenges in sustainable energy and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science. For more information on PNNL, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.