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Influential Women of South Dakota: Cabot Ann Christofferson
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Jackie Hendry: As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Women's Suffrage this summer, we look at the women of the past who led us to where we are today. But, here at SDPB, we're also going to recognize women who are making a difference in our state and in their professions today, and we start with Cabot-Ann Christofferson. She's a researcher and professor at South Dakota School of Minds and Technology. Cabot-Ann Christofferson, welcome back to In The Moment, thanks for joining us.

Cabot-Ann Christofferson: Yes, thank you for having me, Jackie.

Jackie Hendry: So, I know you've joined us in the past to talk about some of your research involved in the underground lab out there, the Sanford Underground Lab. For those who aren't familiar with your work, give us just a quick summary of some of the research you're involved with, if you would please?

Cabot-Ann Christofferson: Sure. One of the experiments that's located up at the Sanford Underground Research facility is what's called the Majorana Demonstrator experiment. It's an experiment that's managed by Oak Ridge National Lab, it has quite a few contributors from all over the US, from national labs and universities. What it's doing is looking at a rare decay process.

So it was installed, construction started back in about 2010, underground. So we were one of the first experiments to go underground, and start there, and we've been taking data since about 2016. This has been amazing. It's part of nuclear physics, and it has basic research, and has been able to expand, and bring in lots of people from other communities to work in South Dakota, have a chance to go underground, teach students at the underground lab. Just an amazing thing that is happening here, in South Dakota.

Jackie Hendry: How did you ... What was the spark for you, to pursue this particular bit of research?

Cabot-Ann Christofferson: You know, that's really interesting. I did not know anything about even the lab up there, really, when it started. I was actually sought out by Pacific National Lab in Washington, they were looking for someone to head up the chemistry underground. This being a physics experiment, there's quite a few physicists, but there's a large aspect of chemistry that unique in this experiment, by manufacturing and producing clean metals, in fact clean copper, that's used in this experiment underground.

So, since PNNL was the one that was in charge of installing that section of the lab, they really needed somebody locally that could be involved in the day-to-day operation of the experiment, to maintain this chemistry laboratory. So, I was brought on, back in 2010 when they built what they called the electroforming laboratory, where we're actually processing copper and turning it into the world's purest copper, so it could be used in this low background experiment. So not generation noise for this experiment, that has to be housed a mile underground.

That's really how I was brought on, was just the opportunity presented itself, and I thought it was just amazing, and something I'd never thought about, never seen. And, just got brought in on that level, and then have just picked up more and more roles within the experiment. Even going forward with our next experiments, have just filled that need of being a chemist in a physics experiment, you don't realize how much disciplines overlap, or how much they need each other in the collaborative research.

Jackie Hendry: Yeah. I watched your TEDX Rapid City talk from a couple years ago, and last summer you presented on a similar topic for Neutrino Day, all about the case for curiosity. Of course, curiosity drives so much of research, and just about any innovation you can think of.

Before we get to your case for curiosity, I wonder if you can bring us back to, as a kid, when was that first moment for you, that launched you on the path you're on now?

Cabot-Ann Christofferson: You know, that's interesting. As a child, I was always, probably, more curious in how things worked, take apart things, see what happens when you have chemical reactions. I think, as a child, I was given the basic chemistry set, and after you did the set of experiments it was more like, what can you do with all these things? So, I just was curious by nature, and that was fostered in my family, to go out and figure out how things work.

Coming to South Dakota in the early '90s, to come to the School of Mines, was just an incredibly opportunity at that university, with all of the different programs. I didn't know what I wanted to do, and School of Minds has heavy, heavy lab aspect to the chemistry program, and I just loved it. I loved figuring how to make things, figuring how to not do things incorrectly. Like any student, you learn through those failures. But, the hands-on, being in the lab, working with chemicals was just so fun for me.

That has translated into all the things that I've done. I didn't set out to work with the Majorana Demonstrator to make pure metals, that wasn't really what my antithesis was, and I've had other jobs with environmental labs, or organic chemistry. So you just have that basis to expand, so every day you're learning. You're learning new processes, you're learning new parts of science, so that is just amazing to be able to just expand. As you go through your career, and you go through your life, you just take on and learn new things, it doesn't stop.

Jackie Hendry: On top of research, you also teach at the School of Minds. That piece you talk about, the learning process of seeing what doesn't work, and then finding the solution, that's hard. A lot of people don't find an appreciation of that process, it's easy to get discouraged. What are you seeing ... How do help your students work through that? It seems, today, and maybe it was always this way, so much of the focus is on the grades and not the process.

Cabot-Ann Christofferson: Yeah, that's true. You know, when I was brought onto the Majorana Demonstrator, I did have to give up a lot of my teaching, but I kept, what's funny, the most general class, I kept the freshman class, because I really feel like that's exposing students to the magic of how the universe, or how matter interacts. So, I try, with my students especially, ... You're right, they worry about grades, and probably miss the experience. I know that happened with me, too.

You have more than one class, you're focusing on so many different things, trying to have a life, and you maybe miss the small details. So with my students, I try at least, I tell them at the beginning of the class ... especially because 90% of them are not chemistry majors, I always tell them, "I hope that you leave this class with at least one thing that you tell your parents, or a sibling, or your friends, that you're just amazed you didn't know how that worked. And now, you understand why."

With students, you just have to relate to the real world of why it's interesting, to be curious. I think that's what you try to convey, is that all of these sciences, all of these things that you're being taught in college, they do have real world applications. That might not be what you do for a living, but it just inspires you to learn more about things.

want to point out something else. I always make a point to let students know that an easy A in something is usually not remembered as much as the hard one B. You know, the students that have to struggle, and have to spend that extra time to explore, that probably stays with them longer than the classes that come easily.

Jackie Hendry: This conversation is part of an ongoing series of conversations we're going to having with a lot of different women throughout the summer, focusing on, well, women, and those impacts in their fields. We hear so often that women in research, or women in STEM fields, the numbers aren't as high as maybe we would like to see. Can you talk a little bit, from that perspective, what your journey has looked like, there? Are there any particular obstacles, being a woman in these fields, that are especially salient to you?

Cabot-Ann Christofferson: You know, I actually see that the climate has changed tremendously. I see that the fields are very, very supportive to women. I'm sure there's always outliers in situations, but I do see that women have great opportunities to excel in these fields. I think it's more about instilling interest in them at an earlier age, so I think the school districts are doing a great job. I think things like the education outreach programs, like BH, or South Dakota School of Minds, and even SURF do, just to expose students, any students, male and female, to science, and how exciting it is, I think really lays the groundwork for those students to expand, and see that there's opportunities in those careers later on.

I will say, I came to the School of Minds at a time when engineering and science was very, very few female students. There were struggles, but I've seen that other places also, I don't think that's unique. You just have to be headstrong. I'm with a group now, and I just see fantastic mentoring by older scientists, and even just support groups in terms of colleagues and students, young students, that they're just making sure each other feel welcome, and succeed, and I just think that it's going in the right direction.

Jackie Hendry: In our last remaining couple minutes, you talk often about the case for curiosity, and mentioned it a couple times today. Talk a little bit about why that's such an important thing for you to highlight when you have these speaking engagements, or with your students, or whoever you're talking to, why it's so important to remember the importance of just basic curiosity?

Cabot-Ann Christofferson: Of course. That really expands on any time you go and you see infrastructure, or science that's being done, you probably wonder why, why does it matter? In the large picture of things, basic research is so important. You have no idea what innovations, what things, new technologies are going to come out of it, that cross the barriers into different disciplines.

This came up, and I did that TEDX talk to really focus on the fact that working at Sanford Underground Research Facility, with the different experiments that are down there, we have a lot of tours that are usually people that are not science backgrounds. You know, the question always gets asked of why, why are we spending this money to do this type of research? That's such a shortsighted question because you get so much that you didn't know. Just within our project, developments in terms of looking at things like detectors that could replace things like [inaudible 00:12:08] Mars. You just have this great amount of research that spans other things, that will contribute to society.

You shouldn't have a narrow look when you look at research of any type, because you're learning. You're learning about the world around you, you're learning how we interact with the universe, and you're going to have benefits of that. And, you're training the next generation of scientist to think, so who knows how that will pay off down the line. But, it just can't be thought of small mindedly, that it's detrimental to create jobs, instill STEM, science, and technology in your young people, they go out, teach others. It's just amazing, the reward that you're going to get from instilling curiosity from this basic research.

Jackie Hendry: My guest has been Cabot-Ann Christofferson, she's our first in a series of interviews as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Women's Suffrage this summer, and also looking at women today who are influential, inspiring, making a difference in our state and in their professions today.

Cabot-Ann Christofferson, really great conversation. Thank you for taking the time to join us today, it's always a treat to hear from you.

Cabot-Ann Christofferson: Of course, thank you so much, Jackie, for having me.