Shawn Smith is an HBCU graduate, who holds a degree in physics. She was an intern at Livermore National Lab and NASA, while she attended Alabama A&M University. She continues to excel in her career path as an adult. Shawn Smith is a role model for young black aspiring scientist.
Q: Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
A: I was born in Fairfax, Va. I was raised in Alexandria, Virginia. All of my life I lived in Alexandria, Va. I went to church every Sunday, growing up. My grandfather was a deacon at the church and my grandmother was very active. Spiritually, we grew up in the Pentecostal church– there was always some church activity. I grew up in a tight knit family, even though I am an only child. I grew up with a lot of cousins, aunts, and uncles and even to this day, I attribute my experiences and successes to my village, because I had a pretty strong well connected family, that was very supportive.
Q: Can you tell us of your education history and what your goals or life ambition was when you were a student in High School/College?
A: In high school, science and math kind of came naturally to me. I got good grades in them and I wanted to take AP physics. In high school, I took chemistry at the time when your high school teacher had to approve you to take the AP course, so when I went to my chemistry teacher, even though I was getting straight A’s in it, and one of the very few kids getting straight A’s in it, he denied me. He said “take something else, you don’t need it to graduate and plus you know it’s not like you’re going to go off and study science, girls don’t study science, girls study nursing, education, or something” and so that pissed me off and changed my entire outlook on sort of breaking that stigma. I didn’t grow up in a world where people told me something I couldn’t do, that was not harmful to me. I took physics and I loved it. I went to Alabama A&M University. I wanted to go to an HBCU. At the time, they were featured in USA Today, I was an avid reader of news papers and magazines. I got my Bachelors of Science in physics with minor in electrical engineering and while I was there, they started a minor in space science, so I was one of the inaugural students in their space science program, which afforded me the opportunity to do an internship out in Livermore National Lab, in California. This was awesome because there were probably like four students that were accepted into this program and I was one of them.
Q: Can you tell us of your job/education experience prior to what you’re doing now?
A: I’ve taken classes in national relations at John Hopkins University and part of my job I’ve taken a lot training in health physics, nuclear engineering, and nuclear physics.
Q: Is this where you thought you’d be 5 or so years ago?
A: Yes, this is where I thought I would be. The summer after my junior year, I got an internship at NASA and, you know, they wanted to keep me on, because the work that I was doing, you know it was important at the time, and so they actually offered me a full time job as an associate engineer, and so my senior year of college, I worked full time as an engineer at NASA and it was a crazy schedule but I did it. So then when I got a job, where I’m at now, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, coming in, I had very high goals for myself. I had set myself for a plan, a five year plan and I met and exceeded my goals. Yes, five years ago I figured I would be where I am. I’m happy with the goals I set and exceeded for myself.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: I’m in a very senior position with a lot of autonomy, so I still continue to be challenged. I enjoy the work, so at least for the next five years, I see myself in the the same career. I do want to do more outreach. I’m pretty active with my alumni chapter in the D.C. area, so I hope to be more active with that and put some more attention there. I really want to do what I can, to do more mentoring for students from Alabama A&M, students from my local community, especially young Africans Americans and women, particularly, to get them more interested in science. I want to increase my focus on giving back.
Q:What kind of advice would you offer a student, who is undecided on his or her career path?
A: Use your resources, there are a lot of resources out here to help you define your interests; some people tend to lead with their passion and some people tend to lead with what they’re good at, think about something that you enjoy doing because you’re going to get yourself in a career, and you ultimately want to be happy, getting up and going up to work everyday. Be a sponge for information, absorb as much a you can, not just information from in the books, but also life experiences and from listening to your family, friends, and professors, definitely work to build your networks and build your relationships because the relationships that you have stay with you and help to grow who you are, so definitely be careful of the company you keep, but build your networks with like minded people and network with folks in various career industries. Also do what you can to each one, teach one, and reach one.
Q: How would you describe the state of higher education in America today?
A: I think that higher education is in a good place. I think many more people see the importance of higher education. I look at my peers growing up, when I was in high school, either ones that weren’t necessarily on track or big in school or the ones that didn’t get the good grades; now that they are in their late 30s and 40s, they went back to school and they have now seen the light of the importance of higher education, and in that they have the ability to pass on those expectations to their children and other generations.
Q: Have you ever travelled outside of the United States? Where, and how does life outside compare to that in the US?
A: Yes, I’ve traveled quite a bit outside of the United States, in my position that I’ve been in since 2007, as the senior physical scientist for international programs. It’s afforded me the opportunity to travel to numerous countries in Europe and Asia. I can’t remember the list but the last time I checked, I think it was like 35 or 40 countries that I have been to. Mainly a lot of that’s traveling for work, but also traveling for fun. Everyone at some point in time should travel, internationally and just get that appreciation, you learn to appreciate other cultures and other languages. Once you’re traveling and you become that foreigner, you have much more appreciation and much more empathy for the issues that folks have when they travel here.
Q: What does the future hold for America?
A: I think this country is moving in the right direction. America has its issues but we are still a strong country. I think everyone has to do their part to change the narrative, with the racial issues, with building our education, and with being a more empathetic and caring society. I’m pretty optimistic that the future will be great for the next generations, that is part of the reason why I want to do more mentoring, to help do my part.
Q: Are you interested in politics? If no, why not? What is your take on the state of politics and the future of the American democracy?
There was a time that I was interested in politics, more on the local scale. The interest is still there; I think right now my plate is pretty full. The priority of supporting my university, as an alumni, is sort of greater than supporting my local politics, so to speak, but it’s still in the back of mind.
Q:How are you responding to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus?
I’ve adjusted, I put myself on mandatory telework. I’ve been busier than ever, when it comes to work. I don’t have the distractions at work, I miss the distractions, so days have been longer. I feel bad for the kids, I just couldn’t imagine, so I just fully sympathize with anyone that’s in school and having to do virtual. I’m definitely a hands on, in person, in your face type of learner. The virtual environment for a school setting has its challenges, but I also know that this current generation, that’s going through it, is pretty resilient. The kids will get through it. We will get through it.
Q: What are your hobbies or extracurricular activities?
A: Mentoring is a hobby, as well as supporting my alumni and local community. Wine is a hobby. I enjoy wine tasting and being outside.
Q: How would you describe your philosophy of life? That is, how do you see this life and what principles get you grounded and moving forward?
A: One principle that I refer to quite a bit and I tell other people at the end of the day everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time and it seems like such a very cliché statement, but moving through a community, a very technical community, a very white male-based career and environment setting, some people sometimes get sidetracked or intimated. I’m very thankful for my family and upbringing and for them instilling in me, that principle.
Q: Let us end this interview with a memorable quote from you. How would you describe yourself to the world?
“I’m just me. I’m Shawn Smith; a girl from Del Ray, Alexandria. I went to one of the best HBCUs in the world, Alabama A&M. I am a proud bulldog. I love to travel and loves being happy. I want to do what I can to make this world a better place. I root for everyone, but I have a special place for young black scientists and engineers, coming up.”
In July of this year, Shawn Smith stated “Im overjoyed to be inducted into the inaugural class of the Under 40 Alumni Champions.” Shawn Smith is a memorable alumni, who takes prides in her alma mater. She continues to do what she can, to make peoples lives better.
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