Like many teens entering college, Stacy Copp only had a vague idea of how she could convert the subjects she enjoyed into a job.
It was the guidance of professors and mentoring from older students, Copp said, that helped usher her into her current career as a research scientist. The 29-year-old Albuquerque native and La Cueva High graduate now tries to do the same for students in her field.
L’Oréal USA recently named Copp a 2018 Women in Science fellow. The designation comes with a $60,000 award she can use for her postdoctoral research and her efforts to mentor other students. The program, according to L’Oréal, recognizes women who are making strides in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Copp is one of five women from across the United States chosen to receive the award. She now works as a research scientist at the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies in Albuquerque. The center is a joint effort by both Sandia and Los Alamos labs.
“I’m studying ways to make new materials that either make or manipulate light,” she said.
Her aim, she said, is to find a way to create tools, processes and technology that use soft materials like those found in biology. She said it would be useful for bio-medical diagnostics or energy applications.
In college, Copp declared physics as her major although she wasn’t quite sure how that would translate into a job later. During her first semester at the University of Arizona in Tucson, she approached one of her professors and asked if she could work in his lab and to her surprise, he said yes.
“I don’t know what gave me the audacity to do that,” she said. “I think my dad told me to do it. I’m glad I listened to my dad.”
It was this experience and decision that would shape not only the rest of her college career but her future career. In the lab, she delved into fluorescence microscopy, which is the practice of using molecules that essentially glow in the dark to study cells and get a better understanding of how they work. It was here that she also met graduate and doctoral students who became her mentors.
“It taught me what it means to be a research scientist as a career,” she said. “I had my own research project and that was pretty ambitious for an undergraduate.”
Later in her undergraduate career, Copp worked for Gabriel A. Montaño as a summer intern at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Montaño is now a professor in Northern Arizona University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He continued to act as a mentor throughout Copp’s academic career and now. He describes Copp as a person who is always professional and has the ability to inspire other to perform at their highest level.
“Watching Stacy continue on her path to scientific success makes me proud beyond belief,” he said. “But what I think makes me most proud is that she’s doing so without compromising who she is as a person or her beliefs in science diversity. I’m very proud that she continues the fight for enhancing diversity within physics and the role model she is to countless burgeoning scientists out there.”
Copp went on to receive a master’s and doctorate in physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she continued conducting research. She opened up her lab to undergraduate students, focusing especially on those transferring in from a community college.
“Working with undergraduates is something I dedicated a lot of time to in California,” she said. “That (working with doctoral students) was transformation for me and I feel it’s my obligation to give back.”
She continues to work with undergraduates in her Albuquerque lab and hopes to use the L’Oréal fellowship money to expand her efforts into public schools. She said she wants to create hands-on demonstrations she can take to local classrooms.
“I want to let them see the same things about science that still excite me today,” she said. “I want to share what it’s like to be a scientist.”
She said her ultimate goal is to make sure students in New Mexico believe they have what it takes to become scientists. She said students here bring a unique perspective to the lab because of the state’s diversity.
“Because of that we can offer a lot of unique perspective and creativity,” she said. “That’s important in research – to be brave enough to try things out of the box and find new and creative solutions. They (New Mexico’s youth) might think they don’t represent what a scientist typically is. I say good for you.”