Jennifer Dionne is an associate professor of materials science and engineering and, by courtesy, of radiology, and senior associate vice provost for research platforms and shared facilities at Stanford.
Dionne, who earned her PhD in applied physics from Caltech in 2009, joined the Stanford faculty the following year and has built a lab dedicated to the study of nanophotonics, using the power of light to observe and control chemical and biological processes at the nanometer scale, with an eye toward applications in global health and environmental sustainability.
A Rhode Island native, Dionne credits her dad, a skilled cabinetmaker, and mom, who earned a two-year nursing degree and spent 30 years working in intensive care units, with teaching her the value of hard work and the pride in a job well done.
Below, she discusses how she became interested in science and engineering, her lab, and how she hopes to mentor future generations of students.
I was not a very chatty child until the age of 3, when the 1984 Winter Olympics came on television. As my parents recall, that was the first time I ever really talked to them; apparently, all I talked about was how much I loved the ice skating. So, my parents knew I was serious and signed me up for lessons while I practiced on my neighborhood streets in Rhode Island. Figure skating helped me get interested in science. In elementary school, when my mom asked me how school was going, I told her I liked all my classes, but science wasn’t a lot of fun. She told me that figure skating wouldn’t be possible without science: how the skates glide over the ice because of the smoothness of the metal blade; how the weight of your body helps the blades slightly melt the ice; and how there are various forces involved that allow you to turn more quickly when you jump and spin.
The conversation stuck with me and got me a bit more interested in science. But my desire to become a researcher didn’t kick in until I started watching The X-Files: Seeing FBI special agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder working together as a team to solve mysteries on a daily basis was a big inspiration. Their work seemed really cool! That was the only type of research I knew about, so for a while I’d tell friends and cousins I wanted to be a paranormal researcher. My cousins would tease me and say, “Oh, you want to be a Ghostbuster,” and I’d tell them, “No, I just want to solve mysteries.” To this day, my cousins still ask me how my “Ghostbusting” is going!
In junior high, I started reading books on quantum physics, string theory, astrophysics and modern physics. I’d often ask my parents a question and they’d say, “Go look it up in the encyclopedia.” So, I’d kind of do my own research, so to speak, just in encyclopedias or at bookstores.
I went to an all-girls Catholic high school that emphasized the liberal arts more so than the sciences. But one teacher, Pauline Sullivan, who had her PhD in theology, became one of my biggest mentors and role models. She was so thoughtful and creative and forward thinking in approaching problems. She taught me that a PhD is valuable not just for the three letters behind your name, but for the way that it teaches you to think.
After high school, I went to Washington University in St. Louis, hoping to major in astrophysics or aerospace engineering, but neither of those were options. They did have physics, and the description in the majors handbook mentioned astrophysics; and there was another major, systems science and mathematics, that mentioned aerospace engineering. So I double majored in those. I was also very interested in philosophy thanks to the influence of Dr. Sullivan in high school, and took as many classes in philosophy as I could fit into my schedule.
I think everyone in college is learning how to be a citizen of the world. Beyond classes, I engaged in extracurricular activities that collectively shaped who I became. I was involved in the engineering student council, in a literature society and in a service club that gave me the opportunity to volunteer and live in a homeless shelter. I was also a residential advisor in a dormitory to help build a strong student community. But I hadn’t considered grad school until the summer of my junior year, when I did an undergrad research program in oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. I got to program and execute experiments in a wave tank and apply the results to understand atmosphere-ocean interactions; the research was fascinating.
My advisor that summer, Peter Cornillon, suggested that I should go to grad school and become a professor. I was like, “Oh, I don’t know about that. I don’t just want to teach.” And he told me that being a professor is so much more than teaching. A professor gets to teach existing knowledge and also to learn new knowledge. He was the first person to tell me he thought I’d be good at it, and I applied to grad school that fall.
During my senior year there was a dinner at Wash U where I was fortunate enough to sit at the table with the chancellor, Mark Wrighton, who’d spent some time at Caltech. At one point he said he’d heard I would be applying to grad schools and asked me where. I listed some places and he suggested I consider Caltech. I took his advice, applied and got accepted, and it was great. I started out feeling like they must have made a mistake, that I didn’t belong there because everyone was so smart. But after a few weeks I decided, “Well, even if they made a mistake, I want to learn as much as possible before they kick me out. So, if something doesn’t make sense, I’ll just ask.”
I asked a ton of questions in my first year at grad school. As an undergrad I had been afraid that if I asked too many questions, or any questions, it would be a judgment of my intellect. I let that go and I’m glad I did because I learned more — or at least understood more — in that first year at Caltech than all prior years of schooling combined. And it turns out that if you ask questions, they are the same questions that many of your classmates have too.
I was still thinking about oceanography when I went to Caltech, but I opted for applied physics. I thought it would be useful to help me to get into biophysics applications, which was another of my interests, but I wound up in a lab doing optics and photonics research. I had a lot of fun pursuing these different paths, and in my fifth year of grad school I received a call from a professor at Berkeley who said they had an opening for a professorship and that I should think about applying. I asked my advisor, Harry Atwater, whether I was close to graduating and whether I should apply, and he said, “Absolutely apply, and while you’re at it, apply to a few other places.”
So, I applied to several faculty positions, including Stanford, not expecting to get a position, but when I interviewed, everyone was very welcoming. I didn’t feel like they were trying to find my weaknesses, but rather telling me, “Here’s how we can harness your strengths.” Stanford made an offer, but I wasn’t quite ready to start my own lab. I wanted to learn a few more skills first, so I did a postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry with Paul Alivisatos at Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to learn nanoparticle synthesis — how you make semiconducting nanoparticles, metallic nanoparticles and their combinations. I loved working in the glovebox doing experiment after experiment, trying to make the nanoparticle with just the right property.
To me, working in the glovebox was almost like conducting a spacewalk — you are engaging with a vastly different environment, with only a few millimeters separating you from the hazardous chemicals. I would volunteer to do any of my labmates’ glovebox work because I thought it was so thrilling.
I started my lab at Stanford in spring 2010, after I finished my postdoc. Every lab has its own unique culture and style of doing science that is shaped not only by the advisor, but also by the people in the lab. As much as I’m the PI and, since having kids, am showing my age, I view my students and postdocs as teammates. We’re working together to solve problems. I don’t have all the answers or know what the solutions are going to be. My students and postdocs are among the most talented, creative people I’ve met.
The people who’ve joined my lab all have a good work-life balance. I really enjoy biking (especially uphill and long distances), running and backpacking; every student in my lab has interests outside of science. I’d summarize our culture as “work hard, play hard and be kind.” We almost always have fun when we’re doing science; in many ways, there’s not a differentiation between work and play.
I’ve encouraged my students to pursue careers that are genuinely interesting to them. They don’t need to become professors or scientists. I just want them to be happy and to do something they love. I have a number of lab members who have gone on to become professors at top universities, including UC San Diego, Rice, Purdue and Wash U. I also have students who’ve gone into industry spanning biosciences, computing, solar and defense. I’ve had some students who’ve gone into public policy. I had one student who went into communications, working for National Public Radio; the team she’s on recently won the first audio Pulitzer Prize. I’m really happy to help foster student interests, even if they’re not leading to the traditional post-PhD path.
Last year, I went to Princeton to give a seminar and had lunch with some students and postdocs. One of them contacted me several months later. She had started as an editor at a journal and wanted to thank me for that lunch because it opened her eyes to the career possibilities beyond being a professor. She wanted to let me know that she’d fallen in love with being an editor. It struck me that my comments, however brief, have the potential to influence career paths. The “social” side of science is incredibly important and can have a huge impact on the community.
I feel so grateful for the many inspiring mentors and role models I’ve had in my life and hope to “pay it forward”; it’s gratifying when people tell me, “Jen, what you said there made all the difference.”