Rebecca Gallivan Receives the 2022 KNI Catalyst Award

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We interviewed graduate researcher Rebecca Gallivan, 2022 KNI Catalyst Award winner, about her STEM-related outreach and mentorship work with local Pasadena students and families. Learn more about her contributions and insights.

Rebecca Gallivan

April 21, 2022

Rebecca Gallivan, Materials Science graduate researcher in Prof. Julia Greer's lab, was nominated and selected as the 2022 KNI Catalyst Award winner for her efforts in STEM outreach and for supporting IDEA- (inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility) related programs at Caltech and beyond.

Learn more about Rebecca's path through STEM and academia, her past and present outreach and mentorship work, and her plans for the future.

Hometown: Bainbridge Island, WA (just outside of Seattle)

Favorite quote: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more and fear less” – Marie Curie (She has awesome quotes)

What areas of research are you investigating? How has the KNI played a role in this?

My research is centered on characterization of nano-architected materials with a focus on mechanical and electro-mechanical behaviors. The KNI has been integral for my TEM work which is a critical component of microstructural characterization. I have also used the KNI for device fabrication to build specific custom platforms which enables many of my experiments. The KNI has been a great community to learn more about the instrumentation and practices behind nanofabrication. This exposure has helped me to frame my research in the context of the nanofabrication community and better collaborate with other researchers in adjacent fields of nanotechnology.

Can you tell us a bit about your path through STEM? What brought you to Caltech?

It can be mostly summed up in “I like understanding and explaining the magic of the world”, and I find STEM is the best way to open the hood and explore the inner workings of the world. My parents helped cultivate and support my continual questions and inquiries. They did a great job of showing me how cool the world is (from zapping CDs in the microwave to exploring the really crazy life systems the live underwater). My freshman year of high school I had my first lab in Biology and was pretty much sold. When I started college, I heard some professors talk about Materials Science and their approaches to using it as a way to engineer the world around us. It resonated with me as great way to view the world and dive into some of the great challenges facing technology.

By the end of my undergrad, I decided that I wanted to explore further the fundamental inquiries that help us understand the laws which govern how we design and engineer systems. Caltech is a great place to investigate fundamental questions and provides such a natural opportunity for interdisciplinary work. It has always been my love of figuring out how the world works and especially the fun, crazy “mad scientist” type problems which drive me to continue in STEM. 

Did you volunteer or participate in outreach prior to grad school?

I did! I've had many wonderful opportunities to engage with community-enriching programs. Working as a youth volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium was among the most formative, particularly in helping build bridges between a public audience and the scientific community! In my undergrad years, I ran a free monthly program through the Society of Women Engineers for middle school girls that focused on building engineering and science skills, teamwork, and exposure to STEM pathways. I also helped lead student advocacy within the Materials department and organized mentorship groups to ensure a strong community. I ran lots of demonstrations for various programs and particularly enjoyed working with SHPE (Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers) at their outreach nights that served the Hispanic and Latin populations in the area. I also enjoyed helping out at a local soup kitchen. 

What are some of the ways you've been involved in outreach, community service, and IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility)-related activities during your time at Caltech?

I have been involved with a lot of local outreach that's focused on bringing in communities which are largely under-represented and marginalized in STEM. I've worked to create spaces for students and help support them in entering (and navigating) the scientific community through research mentorship in the SURF and WAVE programs as well as high school research volunteers and broader mentorship through the Women Mentoring Women program. I've worked to bring in IDEA-related activities and programs to graduate students through educational programming as a graduate resident associate. Ultimately I put effort into making sure my voice advocates for all voices to have the opportunity to weigh in; my engagements build bridges through education (and listening!); and my actions reflect my desire for everyone to participate in cool science. 

What has motivated you to get involved in these activities?

I think community and family support are among the most critical aspects of my success. In my work with many different communities, engaging families -- not just individuals -- is one of the best ways to make lasting impact and inclusion. We often talk about barriers to entry for science and those are real and critical issues; but pathways towards success are also important to acknowledge. Bringing in family and support systems is a really important tool for achievement. That is why I feel so strongly about building inclusive, welcoming, connected communities.

Throughout my journey, I’ve been well supported by peers and mentors. They've helped me as I navigated my own identity in a community where work and identity often become intertwined. I think this has been an important part of maintaining my passion and joy for science, and I want to make sure others have these kinds of tools and support throughout their STEM paths as well.

I find that when I love something, I want to share it with others. What better way to bring in as many people who can love, enjoy, discuss, and explore the wonders of the physical world than by creating spaces where everyone can join and participate?

How do you balance the responsibilities and activities you manage?

Scheduling things very proactively helps me see how much time I have and reminds me when I do need to say no to things. Honestly many of the activities I do around outreach, mentorship, education, and advocacy are a part what helps me think through my own research. It reminds me of the really awesome bits, brings up new discussion. I occasionally even come up with new ideas or think more critically about assumptions during my outreach activities so I often think of it not so much as balancing out between work and outreach but simply different pathways to do what I ultimately love. I also find taking hikes or walks every weekend help me to have time to think and reflect on what I need to do and what I just want to do so that I can get the right mixture.

What does your support network look like?

I have a fabulous support network. I seek out and receive support from several different groups of people for different types of challenges. It looks mostly like various groups of people who help uplift me and listen to me in various different ways. A have a core group of science gals who remind me to go for it and are there to chat with when something is bugging me; my group mates are always supportive discussion and often help me see new perspectives; my family reminds me of the joy in what I do and listen to my rambling about how cool materials are; my boyfriend makes sure I don’t skip meal on accident and he always has some other adventure ready for me to look forward to. 

What was your experience like at Caltech during your first year? How has the cultural landscape of Caltech changed since your time here?

I have a great cohort who entered Materials Science with me which made my G1 experience very supported and fun. I also really appreciated the G2+ grad students who showed me the ropes, introduced me to the greater Pasadena area, and provided their own experiences to help add to my understanding of different pathways through STEM. I think the biggest changes are intertwined with the shut-down necessitated by the pandemic. I’ve found it has made some of that generational connection and peer-to-peer connection more challenging. It feels less like a cultural change and more of an gap in cultural transmission. I do feel that there are a lot more structured opportunities for students to build professional skills and practice scientific communication.

What other changes would you like to see in Caltech’s future, as it relates to diversity and inclusion in STEM?

I think improving the knowledge and understanding around accessibility is a great opportunity for growth. There are lots of simple things like making figures colorblind accessible or including subtitles on talks which I think is important to be a part of the expectation and culture of scientific communication especially at a place as visible as Caltech. I think a simple but effective change could be having better resources around best practices for making our work and work-spaces accessible.

Is there anything you wish you’d known when you started grad school that you know now? Do you have any advice you’d give to your younger self?

Invest in a good second monitor for your computer. It was game-changing once I worked with two monitors that were big and high resolution; it makes working with data and writing papers much easier.

What intentions do you have post-graduation?

I’d love to be a professor at a research university so I am moving on to a postdoctoral position at ETH Zurich with Professor Ralph Spolenak.  I am very excited for my next opportunity to grow as a researcher and am looking forward to build bridges within a new community.