Meet a Local Scientist: September 2017

Dr. Elaine DiMasi

Dr. Elaine DiMasi
Photo of Dr. Elaine DiMasi by Karen-Curtiss

Where do you work and what is your position?

Until recently (July 2017), I had been a Physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), where I first arrived as a postdoc in 1996. My first assignment was in the Physics Department. In 2004 I transferred to the National Synchrotron Light Source. After returning from a sabbatical in Berkeley in 2011, I was promoted to a position at the National Synchrotron Light Source II, which was still under construction!

Describe your work.

My work had three parts. I researched the structure of materials — how their molecules align to create the properties they have. I developed instruments that allowed us to measure structure, and trained visiting researchers to use them. And I always looked for ways to reach beyond my immediate assignments, whether by reviewing proposals outside BNL, doing outreach to families on the lab's "Summer Sundays," or co-editing a book in my field. I have continued this trend by recently leaving the Lab to explore public service.

Where did you go to school? Describe your path to your current position.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, and attended Penn State for my undergraduate degree, along with very many of my former high school classmates! I obtained my PhD at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. During all these years I walked a line between pursuing Electrical Engineering — my father's profession — and Physics — which Dad thought was too impractical! Mom had been a Bacteriologist, with a Bachelor's degree and some years of experience in labs before leaving work to raise the family at home. That may be why my major research efforts, and my co-edited book, were about Biomineralization, an area that links biology and engineering!

Why do you love science?

I love knowing how the world works and I love knowing about all the weird and wonderful things in it, from elusive elementary particles to sea monsters to stars. Popular accounts of science often depict the drama and uncertainty at the frontiers of knowledge, which is certainly an exciting aspect. But we are all standing upon a mountain of foundational knowledge. Once upon a time these foundations were new and controversial. Persistence by scientists, proving and re-proving to test their knowledge, is the mortar that makes these foundations sturdy. So, I also love that science is a true craft.

What advice would you give to people interested in a career in science?

Find a topic that you love to think and talk about. Where you're excited by the academic publications and also excited by talking about it in layman's terms at a bar. That engagement will carry you through the tedium required to check your work and get things right. Maintain your integrity at all times. If you find a mistake you've made, get on a path to correct it right away. Don't re-use old versions of anything if you've realized there's a better way to do the next one. Above all, stay curious.

What is your favorite scientific fact?

The Big Bang was 14 billion years ago; the Earth is 4.5 billion years old; and life on Earth is estimated to have emerged 3.7 to 4.2 billion years ago. This means that our life, our DNA system on our planet, has been a part of the universe for more than 25% of its existence. This is a fact that blows my mind.

Tell us a bit about yourself that is not related to science.

I'm a songwriter, keyboard player, madrigal singer, recording studio hound and I (used to) love taping bar bands and burning CDs.

What is your favorite thing about Long Island?

Besides all the great music; Long Island has an intensity because there's such a hustle of business and working, but everyone also loves the green spaces so much. We ask a lot, and I like that!