Maryland-born Bridget O'Donnell was one of five children. The family relocated to south eastern Pennsylvania when she was young. She played sports, but wasn’t into it much. Then she got some puzzle books. That struck a chord inside her.
Yet it wasn’t until her visits to the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia that she truly discovered her interest in science. The museum, known for its science and technology exhibits, fascinated O'Donnell.
“It was one of my absolute favorite places to go,” O’Donnell said excitedly, as she recalled the experience. “There's different sections of the museum; a part on simple machines, you know, levers and pulleys and things like that. There's a section on human anatomy. There's an oversized human heart that you can walk through and you learned about the chambers in the heart. There's a space exploration section. And they do live science demonstrations.”
O’Donnell was the only one of her siblings to gravitate to the sciences.
It was while in 10th grade that O’Donnell got to work in a lab in high school. The content was so engaging, the hands-on experience so fascinating that she knew from that point she’s pursue the sciences.
O’Donnell has come a long way. After earning a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, she serves as the Manager of Raman Applications for HORIBA Scientific in Piscataway, New Jersey. The global company designs and manufactures precise measuring systems, spectroscopy and components for research and development and industrial applications.
O’Donnell supports applications scientists and sales engineers and interfaces with other HORIBA groups when needed, such as for research and development, or if there is a question about system design. She coordinates demonstrations and sample analysis requests from prospective customers, since HORIBA receives a wide variety of samples including semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, polymers, oxides, organics and minerals. O’Donnell supports existing customers with training and technical or applications support through HORIBA’s Full Collegial Support program. She also maintains and troubleshoots HORIBA’s instrumentation, including its XploRA, LabRAM HR Evolution, MacroRAM, Anywhere Raman and NanoRaman.
The labs were sparse in high school, yet still made an impression on O’Donnell.
“I think the first lab was just observations, learning how to describe things,” she said. “But in one of the labs, I remember we had potassium and if you drop potassium in water it sparks and sputters around on the surface of the water and eventually it completely reacts and you're left with nothing. That was one of the experiments we did. That was really cool.”
O’Donnell’s next stop was King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where she majored in chemistry. She went straight on to the University of Pennsylvania for graduate school. Her work focused on laser spectroscopy.
“I used a lot of different types of lasers and it was gas phase, so we had vacuum chambers and mechanical pumps and diffusion pumps and lots of electronics,” she said. “It was a somewhat chaotic lab if you looked at it from the outside, because there was a lot of optics, wires, electronics and optical tables.”
Her studies touched on environmental issues.
“We studied the hydroxyl radical,” she said. “In the atmosphere, the hydroxyl radical is considered the detergent of the atmosphere, so it's super reactive, and when certain species get into the troposphere, which is the most reactive part of the atmosphere, the hydroxyl radical can go and clean these pollutants up. The hydroxyl radical combines with nitric acid and then converts it into harmless components.”
Most of O’Donnell’s undergraduate classmates were female, although the professors were male, probably reflecting an earlier age when stereotypes about the sciences and arts were formed. But in graduate school, the divide she struggled with the most was the difference in the educational backgrounds of the international students. American schools emphasize a more well-rounded education with classes in the behavioral sciences and the arts, while the foreign students spent most of their time studying science only. O’Donnell had some catching up to do.
“That was probably the hardest part for me, keeping up with classmates who had way, way more experience and knowledge and training coming into grad school than I did,” she said.
Yet in the end, it was the certainty of science that lured O’Donnell into the field.
“You have a lab, you do something, you have a reaction and you end up with some end product, some result and you have to draw conclusions from that result,” she said. “It's like a puzzle. You have to either use math or do a literature search, find references, and ultimately you can get to a solution. It's very logical. I think that's what I like most about it.”
“Of course there's some subjectivity, but on the whole it's a very objective field and there's a right answer a lot of times. There's black and white. More so than shades of gray I would say. It’s nice to have a solid answer and something that can be defended with logic.”
The University of Pennsylvania had a program when O’Donnell attended to encourage young Philadelphia area girls to pursue the sciences. Employees from various companies and universities would get together at a local college and the girls, about 12 years old, would conduct different experiments together.
“I think that is probably the most important way to hook them in, to show them how interesting science can be,” O’Donnell said.
Her own children, aged three and one even do STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) exercises in daycare.
“You need to start getting girls involved, which is really at the elementary school level,” she said. “I think you need to make it as interesting as possible, as early as possible.”
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