Academy scientist pursues physics, teaches cadets about experiences, experiments
Research scientist Reni Ayachitula sits next to a cadet capstone project in one of the Laser and Optics Research Center labs in Fairchild Hall March 11, 2013. The experiment focuses on using black silicone to create more efficient solar cells. (U.S. Air Force photo/Amber Baillie)
by Amber Baillie
Academy Spirit staff writer
3/14/2013 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Academy research scientist Reni Ayachitula didn't always see herself spending hours in the lab, conducting elaborate experiments.
For more than a year, Ayachitula has worked with cadets in the Laser and Optics Research Center. She initially studied English in college, she said, but switched to physics when she realized she had a natural connection and love for the field.
"It's a different type of analysis," Ayachitula said. "Physics teaches you that you're a problem solver and can look at a problem from different avenues. To be able to explain very basic things about our universe is pretty exciting and it feels very natural to me."
Originally from Washington, Ayachitula received her bachelor's degree in physics and math from the University of Maryland, and holds a doctorate in atomic, molecular and optical physics from Ohio State University.
"My father was a scientist and always encouraged me to pursue what I was most interested in," Ayachitula said. "As far as things I've wanted to see and or do in life, I've always gone straight to, 'Okay, how do I make that happen?'"
There are seven labs at the LORC, each home to a number of running experiments, where Ayachitula works with cadets on their capstone projects, teaching them how to use research equipment and work independently.
"It's a nice chance for the cadets to get a glimpse into real world," Ayachitula said. "It's a way for them to connect basic research to stages of work that actually go into commercializing something."
My job is the perfect mix of research, teaching and outreach, Ayachitula said.
"I love being able to see cadets experiment on their own and ask good questions," she said. "It's rewarding because you're able to see their progress and share a craft with them."
Ayachitula is one of three females in the department. Although physics tends to be a male-dominated field, she said women shouldn't be afraid to open new doors to opportunity.
"I think a lot times female students can be timid about pushing open new doors that weren't necessarily open," Ayachitula said. "It's hard to get anywhere without asking critical questions and making sure you're exploring different avenues."
Ayachitula said the more science programs that incorporate young women, such as annual Science, Technology, Engineering and Math events for middle school and high school girls, the more women we'll see in fields such as physics and engineering.
"I think one of the reasons you don't see many women in higher levels of those fields, is because there aren't many who start off in those subjects," Ayachitula said. "The more you draw in, the more you will bring to the ranks."
Most kids are interested in science when they're young and then there is a drop off, Ayachitula said.
"The more excited you can get them about science, the more discovery they'll do," she said.
Ayachitula said in the past, female scientists haven't always been recognized for their work but that times have changed.
"I think my generation of scientists is getting better at recognizing the bias and ensuring the bias isn't there," Ayachitula said. "There is so much that women can contribute to society."
Ayachitula said one of the first female faculty members she knew while studying at Ohio State, Bunny Clark, worked in the high-energy physics department and inspired her to aim high.
"Bunny Clark in grad school was a big deal," Ayachitula said. "I had come from a school where we didn't have any female professors. I had a deep respect for that and in a sense it challenged me to carry it on."
Ayachitula said she thinks women bring an attractive energy to the physics field.
"Most of the women I've seen are vibrant, young and enthusiastic," Ayachitula said. "Imagine if you were a young female cadet considering whether you wanted to go to graduate school. Seeing enthusiastic, talented women and being able to picture that in your future I think can really make a difference in someone's life."
As you climb, find and explore in life, be a mentor along the way, Ayachitula said.
"Make sure you're exposing people to things that you've been exposed to," Ayachitula said. "You always have the opportunity to inspire someone or relate to them in a certain way. I think in every stage of life there is an opportunity to share something with someone that you really love. I get to do that here."
For more information on the LORC, visit www.usafa.edu/df/dfp/lorc.cfm.