Heather Hunt
Dr Heather Hunt
Post-doctoral Scholar, University of Southern California
Pasadena, CA

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Close Up
  • What I Do
    I am a researcher in the field of biophotonics, which is the intersection of light and biology. The work I do is primarily chemistry and materials development. I explore the relationships between the surface chemistry, structure, and physical properties of advanced materials that can be used in optics, electronics, and environmental applications. Specifically, I work with a unique type of sensor device that can be used for medical diagnostics (for instance, to test if there are certain disease markers in a sample). These devices have high sensitivity (even down to the single molecule level!), but they are not specific. That is, they are not able to accurately detect one type of biological entity versus another. So, I am investigating and developing new ways to make these sensors detect only specific biological components, while at the same time, making sure that they remain highly sensitive.
  • Why Engineering?
    I chose engineering because I loved how math and science interconnected, and I wanted the opportunity to be able to help my community directly. Engineers provide the infrastructure of society, and can impact so many people very easily. We're unique in that we truly have the opportunity to lead society into a sustainable future by the things we do as engineers. Very few careers have that kind of opportunity.
  • School Days
    I went to Iowa State University, where I earned my Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering. After that, I attended graduate school at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, California, where I earned my Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy degrees.
  • My Day At Work
    As a Post-doctoral scholar, I do a mix of things. I pursue my own research in our laboratory, I mentor and train both undergraduate and graduate students, and I act as the lab manager, which means that I make sure everything is going smoothly for our students, and help out when it isn't. Sometimes this means I fix very expensive pieces of equipment, and sometimes it means handling administrative tasks to keep the group running efficiently. The best part about my current position is that I have a chance to both mentor and teach (as a guest lecturer) students here at the university.
  • Best Part
    I like seeing a project come to life - to take something from an idea or theory and actually make it physically, then test it to see how it works. It's kind of like being able to play all day, but with expensive toys and the joy of knowing that what we're making could someday change the world.
  • Proud Moments
    I'm very, very proud of earning my Ph.D. at Caltech, and winning a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship during that time.
  • Challenges
    Interestingly, the greatest challenge when you go to graduate school is your ability to do excellent research. What most people who don't have a career in research don't realize is how difficult it can be to make things work on a research project. It takes a lot of patience and perseverance to finally make everything work, and of course, it takes a lot of knowledge about the science and theory of what you're doing.
  • My Family
    My husband is also a chemical engineer (we met in college), but he works in the finance industry as a Chartered Financial Analyst. My parents, who live in Iowa, are both scientists by training. My mom has a degree in computer science, and my dad has a degree in physics. They both earned their undergraduate degrees when I was very young, while they both worked full-time, so they were great role models who showed me the importance of a good education, even if it meant a lot of hard work. In fact, they joke that I started my college education when I was a baby – they sometimes had to bring me to class when they couldn’t find a babysitter. I also have two older siblings; my sister is a civil engineer for an environmental consulting firm, and my brother is a sales executive for a professional sports team.
  • Dreams and Goals
    I'm pursuing a career in academia, and hope to find a tenure-track faculty position where I can pursue interesting research, mentor great students, and be an excellent teacher.
  • Inspiration
    My parents and the faculty at Iowa State have had the greatest influence on me. My parents taught me to work hard, and to never take for granted the chances I was given. The ISU faculty opened up my eyes to all the things that engineers could do, and really supported me through my undergraduate and graduate education. They've been wonderful role models and friends.
  • Want to be an Engineer?
    I would suggest taking as many math and science classes as possible, and to volunteer with local engineering companies to get a feel for what being an engineer is like. I also recommend getting involved with groups that promote women going into engineering - for instance, many Girl Scout troops have science and engineering activities, and have connections with universities and companies. Additionally, there are a lot of after-school and summer programs run by groups like Women in Science and Engineering that can really help you decide which type of engineer you'd like to be. Search out opportunities to expand your knowledge, and have fun while doing it!
  • Hobbies
    I have a lot of hobbies, so I don't do any of them as much as I would like. I really enjoy hiking and camping, so I've been to a lot of National Parks with my friends and family. I'm not a great athlete, but I really enjoy training for and running triathlons, especially since my husband has recently taken up running marathons for fun. I also really enjoy scrapbooking all the pictures we take doing everything, and reading as many books as I can. I'm definitely a fan of mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy, although I'm starting to like a lot of history books as well. We also have two wonderful cats who like to play in cardboard boxes, so they keep us on our toes a lot. Lastly, I like to do a lot of community service. For the last few years, I've volunteered with a local group (the Caltech Animal Team) which helps the Caltech community of students, faculty, and staff with their pets, and provides resources for rescuing pets that have been abandoned on campus. We've found a lot of abandoned pets new homes, and have helped people with everything from searching for a lost pet to help with pet care.
Latest Questions
  • Daezy, Miami asked Heather Hunt, University of Southern California

    Added Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 7:33 AM

    Hello! So I changed my mind several times before realizing that I want to major in chemical engineering. Chemical engineering allows me to do work in pharmaceutical companies, and perfume/food industries. Also if I got a masters in Biomedical engineering, I could do some amazing work there. Chemical engineering just seems so exciting to me! However I received a full ride to a school (University of Miami) that only offers Civil, Electrical, Industrial, Manufacturing, Aerospace, Audio, ...
    Related to Bioengineering/Biomedical, Chemical, Choosing a Degree, Choosing a School, Medicine
    Answers 1
    Heather Hunt, University of Southern California
    Answered Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 7:33 AM
    Hi Daezy, Not having a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering does not mean youre doomed to never work in the fields that interest you! While chemical engineering degrees are a wonderful base to approach any career in science, engineering, ...Read More
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