Erin Witmer was a well-rounded student in high school – an athlete, a serious classical musician and at the top of her class. She says she was known as a “brainiac” because of her interest in science and engineering. Her father, who was a scientist, continually encouraged her to do science projects and her proficiency culminated in Erin representing her home state of Alaska at the International Science Fair in Tulsa, OK. It wasn’t until later that she realized her experience wasn’t a common one for young women.
“My parents gave me early science exposure and I never thought of science as something to be scared of,” she explains. “But, I don’t think I fully understood the realities and challenges of being a woman in science before I left Alaska and experienced the larger world.”
Erin’s trip to Atlanta for Scholars’ Weekend was the first time she’d traveled east of the Mississippi River and she remembers being completely shell shocked. “The other students seemed far more sophisticated and worldly than me,” she recalls. “I didn’t think I belonged and I felt quite humbled and small.”
With the help of her Coca-Cola Scholarship, she was able to attend a fine liberal arts college and pursue her passion for chemistry. Geography, however, was not her strong point. “I thought once you got down to the ‘Lower 48’, everything was close,” she says laughingly. “I was attracted to the New England Nordic skiing culture and Williams had everything I was looking for, but I appreciated how different things were for me when my classmates went home for breaks, holidays and to do their laundry. I couldn’t do that.”
Following her undergraduate studies, Erin spent a year as an intern at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. She was thrilled to be working in the place that was an epicenter for development of the atomic bomb, the science and story of which has long fascinated her. She also felt at home in northern New Mexico, a physical setting that has openness, scale and a connection to the land similar to Alaska’s.
Her next stop was Boulder, CO, and an extremely tough graduate career. Erin credits the supportive environment of her undergraduate Chemistry major for giving her the foundation and perseverance to finish, especially when so many women she knew dropped out.
Today, as a scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO, she helps to develop and refine renewable energy technologies to ease our society’s fossil fuel dependency and ultimately heal our environment. Among her projects are “smart windows” that tint and clear with the application of voltage and contribute to energy savings. She’s also working on new solar cell technologies to identify areas for improvement and cost reduction. “One of the most important places we can focus our efforts and funding is development of non-fossil fuel energy sources to reduce greenhouse gas production,” Erin explains. “With so many potential energy sources, it’s a very creative field and the opportunities are endless.”
In addition to balancing the demands of her work with being a mother of two small children, Erin is focused on being a positive role model to encourage girls and women to enter scientific fields.
“I’m a woman and a mother with a Ph.D. working in a very technical, male-dominated field,” she says. “Hopefully I’m helping to create pathways to get and keep more women in science so we can reach a critical mass.”
The naïve, wide-eyed girl from Alaska has traveled far professionally and personally since she left home, but her dream is to return someday to promote renewable and sustainable energy solutions. She describes her Coca-Cola Scholarship as priceless for making her journey possible. “I don’t know what I would have done without it. There is no way to put a value on the sequence of events in my life that were precipitated by that financial gift. The many wonderful benefits that followed from that scholarship have made me the person I am today.”