Precious Joules: Women in Energy at Notre Dame

In honor of Women’s History Month, we asked some of our women faculty to share their stories of how they became interested in science, engineering, and architecture, and in particular, what or who inspired them to focus on energy. Precious Joules is a collection of these stories from women in energy at Notre Dame written in their own words. Their brief introduction and personal remarks are sure to inspire the youngest of minds to consider STEM education as they demonstrate through their own personal experiences the value and opportunities aligned with this type of training.  


Brennecke Seo
Brennecke collaborates on a research project with
graduate student Sam Seo.

Joan Brennecke, Keating-Crawford Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and founding director of ND Energy. Joan was born in Victoria, Texas. Her childhood hero was her dad, and her dad continued to be her hero throughout her adult years. Joan joined the Notre Dame faculty in 1989.

Aimee Buccellato, Assistant Professor, School of Architecture. Aimee was born in Warwick, Rhode Island. Her childhood hero was (shamelessly) Pippi Longstocking, and her adult hero is Peekay, the young hero of Bryce Courtenay’s novel, The Power of One, which inspires her to this day. Aimee joined Notre Dame as an undergraduate student in 1995 and again as an assistant professor in 2008. She has this advice, especially for aspiring female problem solvers. “Don’t be afraid to ask the Big Questions. And then – perhaps more importantly – don’t be afraid to use your unique talents and abilities to solve them.” 

Sylwia Ptasinska, Associate Professor of Biophysics, Department of Physics. Sylwia was born in Poland. Her childhood hero was MacGyver (TV series 1985-1992), and her adult hero is Mary Poppins (1964 Musical). Sylwia joined the Notre Dame faculty September 2010. She has this advice to any young woman who is considering becoming a scientist or engineer. “Always believe in yourself and in your ability to do great things. There have been many women who revolutionized science and engineering: Maria Curie-Sklodowska, Rosalind Franklin, and Hedy Lamarr, just to name a few pioneers. You can be the next…”      

Jennifer Schaefer, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Jennifer was born in Binghamton, New York. She joined the Notre Dame faculty in summer 2015. Jennifer likes to remind young women that each person is special, with unique gifts that can be used to solve hard problems, and advises, “Sometimes the biggest obstacle is you believing in yourself.”

Interview Questions and Responses

For our young readers, we have included the first three questions that were specifically developed for this article by an eighth grade (female) student at New Prairie Middle School. 

1.    Who or what inspired you to be a scientist or engineer (or building designer)? 

Joan:  My dad. He was a Ph.D. chemical engineer. He was always curious about how things worked. I spent innumerable hours with him in the garage fixing things, and taking things apart just to understand them.

Abframe Raising Nd Leef
Buccellato inspires future architects and engineers
from the fourth grade at Madison Primary Center
(South Bend)as they watch the construction of an
outdoor classroom at ND-LEEF.

Aimee:  At a very young age, I became fascinated by the idea that the raw materials that are used to make buildings could be combined – and transformed, in some cases – in innumerably different ways, depending on the goals and perspective of the designer(s). The Process of Design and agency in design have always been intriguing concepts to me.   Joan:  My dad. He was a Ph.D. chemical engineer. He was always curious about how things worked. I spent innumerable hours with him in the garage fixing things, and taking things apart just to understand them.

Sylwia: I remember when I was six or seven years old, I opened my mom’s wristwatch, which she was not wearing because it had stopped working. I was very curious about what made the hands move and created the tick-tock sound. So I secretly opened the watch and then was amazed by how many different parts were arranged in such a compact space: wheels of different sizes, barrels, springs, and other small items. I started to disassemble the watch while remembering where the particular parts were positioned. This was my first experiment. Then I put all the parts back and the watch started to work. I was in shock that I fixed it, but ever since that time, I have been even more intrigued to find out how things work, and when I studied physics, I knew that I wanted to do experimental research.

Jennifer: I excelled at math and science growing up and I knew that I wanted to put those skills to use. My physical science teacher in 8th, 11th, and 12th grade was a materials engineer retired from IBM. Looking back, I think that having an engineer as a teacher influenced my decision to become an engineer.

2.    Do the men in your field intimidate you, since there aren't many female scientists and engineers? 

Joan:   No.  I find men who try to intimidate women (e.g., by using their physical stature) to be comical.  And pitiful.

Aimee: Architecture, like engineering and science, is a traditionally male-dominated field.  However, we are seeing a shift in this, especially in the schools, where women are now achieving parity or dominating enrollment. Office and teaching demographics don’t yet reflect this shift, but attitudes and roles in each are bound to follow, as men and women are given opportunities to work more effectively together earlier in their careers (i.e., in the classroom).   

Sylwia: No, they don’t. I enjoy working with people of different genders, national origin, race, ethnic background, nationality, socioeconomic status, and age.

Jennifer: No - they've got nothing on us.

3.    Do men or people in general treat you differently than the other men because you are a female?

Joan:   Yes, of course. We all have our implicit biases and expectations of people based on gender.

Aimee:  My experience in industry has been that hard work, preparedness, and good communication skills earn the respect of your peers and collaborators, whether male or female. Unfortunately, the academy still has a lot to learn in this area.    

Ptasinska collaborates with undergraduate student
Joanna Kabuye (l) and postdoctoral researcher
Michele Dawley (r).

Sylwia: I don’t think so. Your personality and attitude affect how people treat you. 

Jennifer: For the most part, no. Though sometimes you do have to speak a bit more loudly to be heard.  

4.    Who or what inspired you to teach and do research in energy? 

Joan:  My Ph.D. advisor was really committed to teaching and mentoring.  I think he made me see how much I was attracted to teaching and research as a faculty member.  
My interest in energy evolved more slowly. I have always been interested in the development of technology that is more sustainable. I came to see that affordable clean energy is the single most important part of environmental sustainability.

Aimee: Since buildings are the largest consumer of energy than any other sector of our economy, I feel a responsibility to study the “up-front costs” – in terms of energy – of decision-making in building design.

Sylwia: My sister, Jola, has both master in science and engineering degrees in marketing and management, but one of her minors is energy management. Whenever I call her, she loves talking about saving energy and environmental protection. And it is also always amazing to me that one form of energy can be converted into another form.

Jennifer: Energy is so important. And, I was lucky enough for my PhD advisor to have an open project in this area.

5.    What particular area(s) of energy do you have the most expertise and/or love to research the most?

Joan:  My primary expertise is in more energy efficient methods for post-combustion CO2 capture using ionic liquids. While we need to transition to renewables, fossil fuels will continue to play an important part in our energy mix for many decades to come. If we are to use fossil fuels responsibly, we need practical means for carbon capture and sequestration.

Aimee:  My current research is focused on finding ways to design buildings to consume less energy and I have also studied ways to more effectively harness and synergize buildings and energy-related technologies. The research that I love the most is research that involves collaboration with other disciplines – as my research necessarily does. We can’t solve big problems on our own. We must be willing to work across disciplinary lines. Luckily for me, collaboration is a natural extension of the architect’s training.

Sylwia:  As I just mentioned, I find it fascinating that one form of energy can be transformed into another, as in solar devices in which energy from the sun, sunlight, generates electricity. One of the projects that I am involved in at the Notre Dame Radiation Laboratory is to develop a realistic picture of the processes occurring in solar photovoltaic devices. This project is not only of scientific interest but also can improve the efficiency and stability of such devices. 

Schaefer Sciencealive
Schaefer inspires young scientists at the energy
demonstrations during the Science Alive! event in
downtown South Bend.

Jennifer:  Batteries!

6.    What do you consider to be your greatest strength as a female researcher? 

Joan:  My greatest strength is my stick-to-it-ism.

Aimee: Listening and being able to say “I don’t know”. This is critical in my work because my research involves engineers of many disciplines, computational scientists, data scientists, semantic web experts, and people with essential expertise that I need to understand, but that one person cannot possibly have. This is why we work together to solve these grand challenges.

Sylwia:  Patience, persistence, and perseverance.

Jennifer:  Persistence. I’m willing to try, try, and try again, while putting forth careful thought as to the reason for less than success at each iteration.

7.    What do you perceive to be your greatest accomplishment as a female scientist or engineer (or building designer)?

Joan:  It’s hard to point to a single thing. It’s more a culmination of many, many smaller things. I guess that’s what election to the National Academy of Engineering recognizes.

Aimee:  To be able to do what I love to do and inspire others to do the same while raising our three sons and one daughter to face the world in front of them as one that is limitless, regardless of their gender or goals (and meanwhile, mom is working as hard as she can to make this so!).

Sylwia: To be offered a position at the Notre Dame Radiation Laboratory, where I not only lead an independent research group, working on projects that are interesting and important to me, but where I also have a lot of opportunities for my personal and professional growth. 


ND Energy would like to thank the women faculty who participated in the interview process and contributed to the article’s formation. 

Other women faculty affiliated with ND Energy are:  Ani Aprahamian, Freimann Professor, Experimental Nuclear Physics, Department of Physics; Melissa Berke, Assistant Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences; Ruilan Guo, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; Amy Hixon, Assistant Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences; Abigail Mechtenberg, Assistant Teaching Professor, Physics Laboratory Coordinator, Department of Physics; Svetlana Neretina, Associate Professor, Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering; Ashley Thrall, Myron and Rosemary Noble Assistant Professor of Structural Engineering, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences; Na Wei, Assistant Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences.


ND Energy is a University Research Center whose mission is to build a better world by creating new energy technologies and systems and educating individuals to help solve the most critical energy challenges facing our world today. For more information, visit the ND Energy website at or contact Barbara Villarosa, Business and Communications Program Director, at or 574-631-4776.