Women in Physics: Dr. Renee Horton

November 20, 2017

This post is part of an ongoing series by Jenny Kliever about women in physics who have inspired others and contributed to the field in unique and impressive ways. The Canadian Journal of Physics will be publishing a special issue on women in physics in 2018. Keep up to date on all CJP activities by signing up for the CJP newsletter.

As a child growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Renee Horton spent many nights staring at the night sky, wondering what might exist beyond our universe. "My interest in space was stimulated during family trips to Biloxi, Mississippi, to visit my uncle who was in the Air Force," she describes in one of her blog posts on the NASA website. "We stopped at the rest area outside of Stennis Space Center, where a replica of the moon lander was located, and I played around it, pretending I was exploring space."

Horton eventually decided she wanted to become an astronaut and joined the Air Force ROTC program when she was 17 and just starting her undergraduate degree at Louisiana State University. Unfortunately, while in this program, Horton discovered that she had a significant hearing impairment and was therefore not eligible to become an astronaut. Feeling discouraged and overwhelmed by this news, Horton dropped out of school. "I struggled with accepting my hearing loss," she says, "and by not accepting it and owning it, it created a lot of obstacles when I returned to school. I still struggle with my hearing loss."

When she did return to complete her undergraduate degree, Horton was a mother of three. Her motivation to return to school came after she had her first daughter. "I felt that she deserves somebody who can open doors for her to be able to walk through whatever door she wants," she said in an interview with Global News last year. 

She received her undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering in 2002 from Louisiana State University. "After completing my undergrad," she says, "I realized that I still wanted to know more. I not only wanted to know how to use the materials I was creating, I also wanted to know how their molecular structures affected their properties."

Horton began her PhD studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 2005. "I bounced around with nanoparticles, quantum dots, and thin films," she says. Throughout her graduate studies, Horton had the opportunity to work at NASA during the summers through NASA's Graduate Student Researchers Program and the Harriett G. Jenkins Predoctoral Fellowship Project.

It was those summers at NASA that eventually led to her studying self-reacting friction stir welding—an innovative welding process that is used to create very high-quality and high-strength welds in aluminum alloys in the space exploration sector. Horton completed her PhD in 2011, becoming the first ever African American to receive a PhD degree in material science with a concentration in physics from the University. Her thesis was entitled Microhardness, strength, and strain field characterization of self-reacting friction stir and plug welds of dissimilar aluminum alloys.   

After receiving her doctorate, she joined the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center as a full-time employee in 2012. Today, only five years later, she not only works on the NASA Space Launch System (SLS) project, but is also its Lead Metallic/Weld Engineer as well as the point of contact for the Vertical Assembly Center (VAC). 

The NASA SLS, as described on the NASA website, is "an advanced launch vehicle for a new era of exploration beyond Earth’s orbit into deep space. SLS, the world’s most powerful rocket, will launch astronauts in the Orion spacecraft on missions to an asteroid and eventually to Mars, while opening new possibilities for other payloads including robotic scientific missions to places like Mars, Saturn and Jupiter." As described on the NASA website (with photos!), the NASA VAC is a "170-foot powerhouse" welding tool that will be used to build the NASA SLS. 

Renee Horton is very good at what she does. Since starting at NASA, she has received six group achievement awards, which are "prestigious certificates given to individuals for an outstanding group accomplishment that has contributed substantially to NASA's mission." She also received the Trailblazer Award at the 2010 Black Engineer of the Year Awards STEM Global Competitiveness Conference. Her success has led her to become passionate about encouraging people to follow their passions as well. Taking centre stage on Horton's website is her affirmation that "When you find your intersection between your talent and your passion, you find your true happiness." When asked to explain this quote, she says:

"I believe when you know what you are good at and you enjoy the work you do, and the two intersect, you have found your sweet spot for happiness. It’s like finding your favorite food or ice-cream. The joy you feel when you consume it is irreplaceable. The happiness you feel when you are doing something you are good at and that you love to do is irreplaceable."

Horton is also an active advocate for diversity and equality in science.

She currently serves as the President of the National Society of Black Physicists, as the second woman ever to hold the office. She is a member of the International Union of the Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) Women’s working group in Physics, has served as the Chair of the Forum on Graduate Student Affairs of the American Physical Society (APS), was an invited speaker for the First International Women and Girls Day at the United Nations on February 11, 2016, and was the keynote speaker for the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (BUAP) Conference for the International Day for Women in Puebla, Mexico. Next year, she will be the banquet speaker at the 2018 Canadian Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CCUWiP), to be hosted from January 1214, 2018, at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. 

When asked what has motivated her to get involved in these initiatives, Horton says, "When I was a child, I remember my father saying I should be an engineer instead of a scientist because he knew black engineers and not black scientist[s]. That equated to me that maybe blacks don’t do science, because I felt my dad knew everything... I didn’t want my own daughter to have this dilemma so I started fighting for diversity."

In her spare time (I have no idea how she has any spare time!), Horton is also the author of children’s books, one of which she is currently working on, entitled Dr. H Explores the Universe.  

If you ever get the chance to chat with Dr. Horton, take it! She is an inspiration and a conversation with her is filled with messages of encouragement. One message that stood out was this: "Life is not always easy, so don’t get discouraged if you have to work harder than others to get what you have. Each of us ha[s] a purpose in life and all things happen in your season."

Jenny Kliever is a science communicator with a passion for the physical sciences. She completed a Bachelor of Science in Physics at the University of Guelph and a Master in Science Communication at Laurentian University. Currently, she is the Communications Officer for the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology in Spain, and also works remotely for the Canadian Association of Physicists.

Filed Under: Women in Science Canadian Journal of Physics Jenny Kliever

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