Girls Raised In Tennessee Science

Faces of Tennessee Women in STEM

Erin Wilkerson, PhD, PE

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

  1. How did you become interested in the math or science field while at high school?

I've always liked puzzles and figuring out how things work. So, I enjoyed science because it described what I saw in the world around me. But, I have to admit I didn't like math until high school. It was just memorization (very boring!), or so I thought. But, in my freshman algebra class, I learned that numbers and equations are a very neat and very clever way to explain our world. It pretty quickly became clear to me that having strong math abilities would unlock the doors to very exciting (and profitable!) career possibilities.

However, as I was preparing for college I was afraid to major in engineering. It sounded impossibly hard and I just didn't think this country girl would be able to make it. Fortunately, my toughest (and best!) math teacher wouldn't give up on me. So, I decided that if the university was willing to let me be an engineering major, I was willing to try. What did I have to lose? That's a decision I'll never regret!

  1. What are some areas of your job that you like the most?

I love to learn new things and am so happy to have a job that lets me do just that! My job often requires me to explore new questions, learn new skills, meet new people, and travel to new places.

Don't underestimate how influential scientists and engineers are in our world. They play significant roles in designing new products, solving major problems, and in establishing government policy. The work I'm involved in here at ORNL will be used to shape the developing cellulosic ethanol industry and change our country's energy situation. It's very exciting to know that the work I do everyday will positively impact so many people.

  1. Please tell me a short biography.

I grew up in rural Union County, Tennessee (just north of Knoxville). I earned degrees in Agricultural Engineering from the University of Tennessee (BS in 1999), University of Kentucky (MS in 2002), and University of Florida (PhD in 2005). I was an Assistant Extension Professor at the University of Kentucky until May 2007 when I returned to East Tennessee (My blood still runs orange!) and I now work in the Environmental Sciences Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. At ORNL, I am working on the logistics of producing, handling, storing, and transporting biomass feedstocks from agriculture (ex. switchgrass, corn stover) and forestry (ex. logging residues) for producing cellulosic ethanol.