As part of Women’s History Month, meet Dr. Lindsey McMillon-Brown, an electrical engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.
CLEVELAND — Since childhood, Dr. Lindsay McMillon-Brown has loved to explore. Over the years, her curiosity has taken her from her own backyard to the Great Lakes Science Center, to space camp, and beyond for further education. Today she works in NASA Glenn Research Centerwhere her work on Perevskites may one day spur space exploration.
McMillon-Brown, who grew up in Russell, Ohio, is a self-proclaimed “craftsman,” recalling watching her father fix cars in their garage and learning from her mother, a science teacher. She describes her younger self as a bit of a “counterculture” gravitate towards sports and dirt rather than the “traditional” paths that little girls usually follow, and finds an interest in math and science.
“I owe it to my parents who made me feel like I could do anything,” she said. “I was already told to think that there were no limits for me because I was a girl, or no limits for me because I was a black girl, so I felt like I could do anything.”
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Dr. McMillon-Brown stayed true to herself and her interests, embracing STEM early. She graduated from the Hawken School and attended Miami University in Ohio, aiming for a career in medicine until a research experience opened her eyes to a new career.
“I was doing research as an engineer, and it was something I didn’t know was possible before,” she said. “And I remember explaining to my parents that I felt like I had more creativity and could give more and that I could make a bigger impact as a researcher. And I didn’t think I could have the same effect as a doctor. So that was the deciding factor.”
Dr. McMillon-Brown was on a new path, also inspired by an internship at NASA, during which she worked with solar cells, devices that she says “harvest the sun’s energy” and use it to generate electricity.
“So I promised my mom, ‘I’m still going to be a doctor, just not that kind of doctor,'” she said. “At Yale, I studied chemical engineering and got my master’s and PhD there, and I switched from mechanical engineering to chemical engineering because I really wanted to get specialized training in solar cells.”
Dr. McMillon-Brown was drawn to solar panels, able to use her interest in STEM along with her creative side. She was also excited about the opportunity to do work that she hoped would help the environment by “working on the solar cell and helping us with the energy crisis” while fulfilling NASA’s space exploration mission.
“Solar power is even more necessary in space because there are no outlets on the moon. So when we get there, we need to take a power source with us,” she said. “They are very useful for us as we try to find cleaner energy – or environmentally friendly ways to meet our energy demand.”
Although she had her sights set on NASA, the road there wasn’t always easy. But Dr McMillon-Brown said what she wanted to achieve helped her cope.
“It was a really tough road. Graduate school was tough and it took a lot of work and dedication to become a subject matter expert,” she said. “But I would say that having NASA as my goal and my finish line really helped motivate me when times were tough because I was working toward something bigger.”
While she is an accomplished physician and electrical engineer today, Dr. McMillon-Brown has experienced her fair share of bumps, including people who doubted her abilities. She said she overcame these challenges by leaning on the people in her life who believed in her and “having more positive voices in my mind than negative.”
These fans and mentors have helped guide and support her throughout her career, especially in an industry she says has traditionally been made up of white males.
“The landscape is mostly male and mostly white,” she said. “However, I’ve been fortunate to find mentors and advocates along the way who have helped me navigate and continue to feel like I belong and find my place in this community.”
Now McMillon-Brown’s goal is to continue that support by paying it forward by supporting others.
“I try to be present and do community outreach and show people that I am what a scientist looks like and I am what a researcher looks like,” she said. “Therefore, there is definitely room for all of us. We need all the bright minds, all the creativity, all the different perspectives we can get to solve these really complex problems.”
These days, the challenges Dr. McMillon-Brown is focusing on revolve around perovskites, a new class of solar cells that she describes as lighter and more flexible than traditional materials.
“The amazing thing about this technology is that you can actually make it in space,” she said. “So what we’re working on is to make it so that you can take a small container with you with your original materials, and then when you get there, you’ll print them out, almost like we would print newspapers now.”
An added bonus to this work is that Dr. McMillon-Brown can do it from her home state. She grew up in Ohio and is happy to be back with her family.
“I am deeply proud of this city and I love the land and the people in it,” she said. “So being home, enjoying the food and sights and sounds I grew up with, being around my family and doing groundbreaking research is wonderful.”
Through her pioneering work at NASA Glenn and her desire to show others that they can achieve their dreams, Dr. McMillon-Brown said she hopes the next generation knows there are no limits.
“Some people say the sky’s the limit, but I’m living a life I couldn’t even dream of when I was at space camp — and it’s even better than I could have imagined,” she said. “So I would say: don’t limit yourself. Surround yourself with positive people who lift your spirits, believe in you, and support your life’s work and your mission. And go for it.”
Editor’s note: The video in the player above was originally published in an unrelated story on March 18, 2023.