Dimtra Stratis-Cullum - 2020 SPIE Women in Optics Planner
US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory, USA
Country of Birth: USA
My parents encouraged me that with hard work and determination, I could do anything. Although neither were scientists, they both had overcome adversity, had unwavering strength, and found paths to continual learning and growth. Growing up I always excelled at math and art and later realized that I could use that creativity to tackle challenging problems through science and engineering. In high school, I was very interested in the environment which initially drew me to major in chemistry. After a summer research experience working with lasers, I found the light— and my passion for spectroscopy. It was my desire to always keep learning that motivated me to continue on in my studies, obtain my doctorate degree, and to work on some of the most challenging problems.
As an Army scientist, and more recently an essential research program manager, my job is to lead foundational research that will lead to advanced future concepts to protect the soldier. I work at the intersection of biotechnology, chemistry, and photonics. I have been pioneering the use of synthetic biology to harness low routes for assembly of optical materials and development of living materials for advanced sensing applications.
Looking back on my education, I wish I realized earlier that as a scientist it is not what you know that is as important as how you think. That may have saved me a lot of stress when prepping for oral comprehensive exams and other thesis committee meetings. I wished people had helped me be more self-confident. People are their own worst critics, but we need to use that criticism to always improve. Don’t hold yourself back and be afraid to apply for positions if you aren’t 100% qualified or because you fear failure. Everything is an experience and an opportunity to grow and learn, even interviews. If you take that attitude, you are never failing.
Learn more about what a career in STEM can offer through a mentor or a special program that gives you hands-on experience, like taking research credits in college. It’s never too early to start to network. Don’t be intimidated by others; don’t be afraid to ask for advice, and don’t be afraid to fail. The worst scientists and engineers are the ones who think they know everything!
As a female scientist working in an interdisciplinary field, I aim to not only inspire others to this field, but to encourage others to put their talents to work for the soldier and national security. It takes the brightest minds, and the convergence of diverse approaches, talents, and perspectives to solve our most challenging problems.