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Stacey K. Vargas

In this installment of Senior Member Insights, we talk with Colonel Stacey K. Vargas. Stacey is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI).  In 1996, she was the first woman hired in science and engineering at VMI, where she created two research laboratories. The first was a laser spectroscopy laboratory, to study optical properties of ions doped into solid-state crystals. More recently, she created an ultrashort-pulse optics laboratory, in which she works on a free-space optics telecommunication links. She also enjoys teaching a variety of courses, including an optics course and an optics lab.

What first interested you in pursuing science?

One of my brothers had a chemistry set, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I was probably five years old. He would do these experiments to blow things up or make the house smell like sulfur, and my mom would yell at him. I thought it was great--including the fact that my mom yelled at him!

What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field? (For example: Professional conferences, networking events, webinars, etc.)

I think all of the above are helpful. I am learning to value webinars. If you find the right webinar, it can be engaging and useful. I like being able to log on, listen and learn.   

What tips do you have for effective collaboration in your field?

I would prefer to answer this as collaborations with my students. Being at a small undergraduate institution, I spend more time collaborating with my students than with others in my field!

My tip would be, always remain open to the free thinking and unique ideas brought forward by your students. They often ask great questions or have interesting ideas that, at first, may appear trivial and easy to dismiss, but if you have an open mind, sometimes the question turns into a new project or creative solution to a project in progress.

What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?

I would not be where I am now without two very influential mentors in my life. One was my undergraduate advisor. From him I developed a foundation for teaching and mentoring. He believed all students had potential, and with a good mentor, they could exceed their potential. I try to focus on that when I mentor my students, both weak and strong.

The second mentor was my Ph.D. thesis advisor. One of the most valuable things he offered was a completely equitable work environment. He treated me just like all the other, male graduate students working in his lab. He helped me develop confidence in myself and overcome my own self-doubt. Their mentoring has remained a guiding factor for me throughout my professional career. I try to emulate all that they gave to me when I mentor others.

How important are leadership roles in career development? How do you hone your leadership skills?

In academia, leadership roles are important, but in my experience they have not always been easily attainable. Chairing committees or being department head are normally appointed positions. Women are not always on the top of the list. I hope the culture is changing or has already changed for younger women in academia. 

What advice do you have for young scientists who are about to interview for their first job?

Be open to opportunities that may not initially appeal to you. Or to say it another way, don’t be afraid to venture out of your comfort zone when applying for jobs.

At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?

As a lifelong academic, I feel like every semester is new journey. I look forward to each course I teach. I look forward to engaging students in the classroom and working with them on research projects.

If you weren’t in the sciences, what would be your dream career?

I would be a poet and a playwright. My real dream would be to write a musical.