Bridging the Divide: Amy Goodson, NSF Graduate Research Fellow

May 5, 2016 | Benjamin Morris

Amy Goodson

If there was ever any doubt that unusual career paths can lead to success, Amy Goodson, the newest National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow in the School of Science and Engineering at Tulane has laid that notion to rest.

“I’m not your traditional grad student,” says Goodson, 30, a native of Denver and a first-year Ph.D. student in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “I didn’t fit into the standard box.”

Indeed, while many aspiring engineers see graduate school as the next stepping stone in their careers, Goodson chose a different route. Fresh out of her undergraduate degree in Colorado and fascinated by new developments in the oil and gas industry, she joined a team at Chevron, where for the next six years she would serve as an upstream facilities and pipeline engineer, increasing efficiency in production and, in her words, “fixing whatever happened to break that week.”

Goodson values her time at Chevron, she says, in part because it gave her a results-oriented attitude. Working with teams that would attack problems head-on instilled a proactive mindset that she’s not sure she would have gained by a different path. “Working in industry helped me understand how to take a problem and break it down into steps,” she says. “I love seeing how parts relate to one another, and using that understanding to move forward into a solution.”

Yet despite the invigorating work ethic, Goodson says that she still preferred the technical aspect of engineering, digging into details of a situation to find out how and why issues arose, to the more routine-based procedural work that her day-to-day tasks often required. That, and all the upper-level jobs that appealed to her in petrochemicals required a Ph.D—so, naturally, she started looking.

Goodson investigated graduate programs across the country, but fortuitously, a colleague at Chevron had previously worked with Dan Shantz, Entergy Chair of Clean Energy Engineering at Tulane. In town with family for the holidays last year, Goodson came to Tulane’s campus for a visit, and quickly felt that the university was a good fit. After she entered the program, Goodson says, Shantz went a step further and encouraged her to pursue the NSF fellowship.

Uncertain at first, she went ahead and filled out the application. To her surprise, she won and is the first CBE student at Tulane in years to receive such an award. “With such a research focus to their work, I was worried my years in industry weren’t what the NSF was looking for,” Goodson says. “I was genuinely surprised when I received an email saying that I had been selected as a Fellow.”

As further proof of her accomplishment, Goodson is also the first named Cowen Scholar in the School of Science and Engineering, as part of a scholarship created by the Thomas and Helen Armer Endowed Fund. Now completing her first year in the program, she is focusing on developing new materials for clean energy applications, working under Professors Julie Albert and Hank Ashbaugh, experts in computational and experimental methods in polymer physics. Goodson, who describes herself as very “application-focused,” hopes to contribute not by making new polymers from scratch, as some researchers do, but instead learning more about existing polymers, specifically characterizing their self-assembly behavior. Albert, her research advisor, says that Goodson is off to a promising start:

“Amy is a fantastic student and we are proud of her accomplishments. The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship not only recognizes excellence in research but also the merits of mentorship and outreach. In this area, Amy has involved herself in the Tulane section of the Society of Women Engineers, attending the National Meeting with us last fall. Her prior industrial experience was invaluable to the undergraduate students seeking jobs and internships, as she coached them on how to present their skills and expertise to recruiters, and encouraged them to keep trying even if they thought they had ‘already talked to everyone.’”

Goodson’s fellowship officially begins in June, and with the opportunities that it provides, she hopes to pursue a career both in research and eventually in teaching. Today, she is modest about the value of her experiences in industry, preferring to tackle challenges that remain rather than to place herself on any pedestal. “Like it or not, there is still a divide between industry and academia,” she notes. “In general, industry is interested in revenue, and academia is interested in pure knowledge. Plus, people in different sectors talk about problems in different ways.”

Yet the School’s newest NSF fellow isn’t afraid of those differences at all—indeed, if industry and academia are two different languages, she’s comfortable speaking in both.

“I don’t know what the future holds—no one does,” Goodson says. “But wherever I go back to work, I hope to bridge that divide.”

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