Berkeley Lab

Q&A with Joy Leggett: Celebrating Black History Month and STEM

XBD201502-00020.TIFIn honor of Black History Month, Chemical Sciences postdoc, Joy (Christina) Leggett, will be sharing her professional background, personal experiences, and her perspective on engaging underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. 

Q: Why did you choose to work at Berkeley Lab?

A: I worked at Berkeley Lab as an undergraduate program participant in the Energy Research Undergraduate Laboratory Fellowship (ERULF), part of Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI). It was my first time in the Bay Area (and the west coast, for that matter) and I fell in love with the Lab and the Bay Area. After finishing graduate school at Berkeley, I jumped at the opportunity to return to LBL to do research.

Q: What is your educational background?

A: I have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Florida State University and a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of California – Berkeley. I currently work in the Chemical Sciences Division as part of the Actinide Chemistry Group.

Q: What inspired you to work in a STEM area?

I have been interested in science and math and had a natural curiosity about my surroundings since early childhood. I wanted to work in a STEM area because I realized early on that science and engineering were necessary to help solve many of the world’s problems such as disease, water contamination, and food and energy shortages.

Q: What excites you about your work at Berkeley Lab?

A:  The exciting thing about my work is that each question answered leads to new, more exciting questions to answer. In order to answer these questions, I usually have to think outside of the box or learn a new technique or subject material. Therefore, my work never gets boring because there are always new questions to ask and new things to learn. Also, the fact that we are doing research as part of multi-institution team means that many types of fun collaborations can be made.

Q: How can our country engage more underrepresented groups in STEM?

A: Many underrepresented students only have access to inadequate or virtually non-existent STEM resources at their schools because of unequal distribution of property tax revenue. Redistributing revenue from property taxes or increasing state and federal support for these needy schools could bring needed materials (and STEM teachers) that can be used to increase awareness and interest in STEM fields. Also, it’s important for underrepresented minorities who have pursued successful careers in STEM to give back by mentoring and working with young underrepresented students. I think that many of these students believe that careers in STEM are either unattainable or pointless because they don’t see or have an opportunity to interact with successful STEM workers with similar backgrounds.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time? What are your hobbies?

When I have spare time, I enjoy reading, hiking, traveling, a good dinner and a movie, intellectual discussions with friends, playing video games, and foosball whenever I can find a table.


  1. I completely agree with you, Stacy. I would like to add two things: First, when I stated that I believe many underrepresented students think that STEM careers are unattainable, I meant that these students buy into the stereotype that STEM is too hard for people like them. I heard such things when I was growing up: “oh, of course he’s good at math because he’s (insert racial stereotype)”. On a deeper psychological level, this both worsens their performance in STEM courses and mentally closes the door on STEM careers for them. Therefore, in addition to showing them what scientists and engineers actually do, we need to change the students’ perceptions that only people from certain racial (or even financial) backgrounds can do STEM. Second, STEM careers unfortunately do not have the reputation of being exceedingly lucrative like other careers such as medicine, business, law, or professional sports/entertainment) which could deter students who may also come from impoverished backgrounds. Instead, they probably envision STEM employees as haggard individuals who work long hours in the lab for inferior pay, little recognition, and little to no vacation. Mentoring can certainly help fix both of these issues, which is why I try to volunteer in outreach programs aimed at increasing interest in STEM careers for underrepresented groups (this includes women, in my opinion) whenever I can.

    Thank you very much for your comments, Stacy.

  2. In addition to believing careers in STEM are unattainable or pointless as stated in the featured Q&A with Joy Leggett, underrepresented students sometimes never even consider these careers for themselves. Students often have aspirations that are limited to their experiences and the careers they’ve been exposed to. They don’t quite understand what a scientist, engineer, or mathematician would do in a career (besides teaching the subjects in school); without this knowledge, they are not aware of the STEM careers available to them and less apt to explore them. More mentoring, workshops, and field trips to educate underrepresented students of the career possibilities would be of great benefit to help them to envision how their interests could translate into a viable career in STEM.