NETL researcher Ranjani Siriwardane is a trailblazer within her areas of expertise and in the advancement of diversity and inclusion to drive innovations for clean energy technologies.
Besides finding solutions to complex technical issues, Siriwardane, as well as other women at NETL, are
taking steps to close the gender gap that exists in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
In doing so, they are increasing levels of diversity and inclusion within the NETL workforce, which is key to building a workplace culture where all feel comfortable and empowered to contribute insights and ideas that produce game-changing discoveries.
A research scientist at NETL for 33 years, Siriwardane is one of the Lab’s most prolific researchers.
She is the co-inventor of 26 U.S. patents and has earned numerous scientific awards for discoveries that have had a profound impact on the production of clean and affordable electricity. In 2020, the journal PLOS Biology named Siriwardane as among the top 2% of scientists in the world based on their career-long citation impact.
Siriwardane’s projects include sorbent development to remove sulfur from fuel gasification processes and to capture carbon dioxide generated by power plants and industrial processes. She also specializes in the development of catalysts and oxygen carriers to produce hydrogen, a clean fuel.
Siriwardane’s academic and scientific accomplishments would not have been possible without the support of family members, teachers and others who recognized her early interest in STEM studies, encouraged her to pursue her dreams and overcome obstacles while growing up in Sri Lanka, an island nation in South Asia.
Today, she gives back. Siriwardane has provided free tutoring to students at West Virginia University and local high schools and serves as a scientific judge for the West Virginia Regional Science Bowl.
She notes that the consequences of failing to encourage more women to consider STEM careers may be serious.
“Contributions by a large percentage of our population will be wasted if women don’t participate in STEM fields. Women who were fortunate to participate in STEM careers, even with difficulty, have contributed to new inventions that have helped to improve our standards of living. It is important for us to provide opportunities so that girls and young women receive STEM education and are encouraged to pursue careers in science and math,” Siriwardane said.
NETL’s Patcharin “Rin” Burke, whose projects focus on developing low-cost, high-efficiency solid oxide fuel cell systems and materials and components for advanced turbines, was encouraged by her parents to pursue a STEM career.
“I am blessed and fortunate to have had parents who understood the necessity and importance of education. I chose to study engineering to have better career choices so my parents could be proud of me,” said Burke, who joined NETL in 2009.
“In Thailand, where I am originally from, engineering was heavily male-dominated. When my eldest sister was accepted into a chemical engineering program, I was so proud of her and decided to follow in her footsteps,” Burke added.
That family legacy continues. “One of my nieces selected materials science and engineering for her bachelor’s degree. It is enjoyable to discuss with her how we use science and engineering in real life — including in fashion design, which is her main interest outside of academia,” Burke said.
She also works to eliminate a stigma that discourages some from seeking STEM careers. Although strong academic performance is a prerequisite, “you don’t need to be a genius. You just have to be curious and passionate about how things work, why something works or fails, and how things can be improved,” she said.
Carol Painter, an NETL engineer and federal project officer working in the Energy Delivery & Security Team,
explained that a heightened sense of inquisitiveness was a prime factor that led her toward an engineering career.
“Science was my favorite class growing up and I always had a curiosity about how things are made and how things work. In high school, I remember not being certain of what I wanted to do as a career and being attracted to the field of engineering because of the wide variety of careers that one could have with an engineering degree as a foundation. The flexibility in being able to work for a wide range of employers was also attractive,” Painter said.
It was a wise career choice. Today, Painter’s responsibilities include working with electricity providers across the nation to deploy smart grid technologies. Her work, which involves the use of big data analytics and modeling, results in improved grid asset management and strategies to expand the use of clean energy resources such as wind and solar power, prevent power outages and heighten the grid’s resiliency in the event of natural disasters and cyberattacks.
Christina Wildfire joined NETL in 2016 and today works as a member of the NETL Reaction Engineering Team where she explores breakthroughs in microwave technology. Microwaves offer a unique opportunity to researchers because they can provide rapid, selective heating on a molecular scale. While conventional heating works from the outside in, microwaves target specific areas for heating, which can save energy and minimize startup and shutdown times compared to conventional energy processes.
As the principal investigator on NETL’s low-pressure microwave ammonia synthesis project, which received a prestigious IChemE Global Award in 2020, Wildfire’s research is helping to ensure ammonia — one of the most widely used chemical compounds worldwide — can be made affordably and efficiently to produce essential products such as fertilizers used in agriculture.
At every stop in her academic and professional career, Wildfire has noted that top-achieving teams that advance discoveries all share an important quality: They embrace diversity.
“Women bring diversity not only in gender but in our way of thinking, interacting with others and in our backgrounds. I have been in many different work environments. It truly works best when there is more diversity. You get more perspectives, different types of problem-solving and a better sense of community,” Wildfire said.
Since joining NETL in 2009, much of Djuna Gulliver’s work has involved analyzing
the microbial communities in various systems, such as hydrogen storage reservoirs, carbon storage reservoirs and energy system waste streams, to determine if they can be operated and managed safely and efficiently.
Gulliver also serves as a mentor for students, early-career researchers and other participants in research programs administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education that open doors to talented women interested in STEM careers.
“Women represent 50% of the population. When women are not equally represented in STEM, we are missing opportunities for new thought and creativity; this inhibits innovation in every STEM field. And since innovation leads to more innovation, this can have broad-reaching consequences,” said Gulliver, an environmental engineer.
NETL is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory that drives innovation and delivers technological solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future. By leveraging its world-class talent and research facilities, NETL is ensuring affordable, abundant and reliable energy that drives a robust economy and national security, while developing technologies to manage carbon across the full life cycle, enabling environmental sustainability for all Americans.