Locke Makes Path Easier for Those who Have it Harder than Herself
Jenifer (Warner) Locke, an alumna of the University of Virginia Department of Materials Science and Engineering, has earned the TMS Frank Crossley Diversity Award, which recognizes her overcoming adversity to achieve career success in minerals, metals or materials.
Locke, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at the Ohio State University, earned her Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science in 2010. She remains active in UVA's materials science and engineering community as a member of the department's external advisory board.
Locke chairs the TMS Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, which she has served as a member for more than a decade. When she first joined the committee, she produced its annual highlight section in the Journal of The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society to share DEI best practices. One series of articles addressed gender and race, which Locke calls “seen” elements of diversity.
“If you see a woman or person of color working the sciences, you know they’re probably going to have a hard road,” Locke said.
A second series of articles focused on unseen aspects of DEI, such as the needs of the LGBTQA community and people who struggle with mental and developmental disabilities.
The journal articles raised awareness of diversity within the materials science community and gave people tangible things they can do to better their workplace.
The awareness-raising effort also applies to colleges and universities.
“I have learned that as you move up the rungs of academia, it becomes more conventional-looking,” Locke said. “There are certain groups of people who have more accessibility to get a Ph.D., to be a professor. The higher you climb the rungs the more it squeezes down that accessibility zone.”
As chair of the TMS DEI committee, Locke is helping with plans for the summit on diversity in the minerals, metals and materials profession, now in its 10th year. She also aims to increase TMS members’ volunteerism and participation in the DEI committee’s work and make it more sustainable.
Locke became engaged in LGBTQA activism having seen how the fear of coming out affected her best friend in high school, who is gay. “He was afraid to lose me, to lose his parents, even though all the evidence pointed to his being accepted,” Locke said. “The culture we live in caused fear, caused depression, caused him to pull away from people.”
Standing by her friend throughout his coming out journey was eye-opening. “If there is a society around you and structure that makes you feel oppressed, you will be alone,” Locke said. “Because you don’t truly know how safe and secure you are until you let someone show you.”
Locke’s friend did overcome his fear and is recently married; Locke officiated at his wedding.
“If we could change society to be more loving in general, it would really make peoples’ lives so much easier,” Locke said.
Locke continued her LGBTQA activism at Alcoa, where she worked after earning her Ph.D. degree. Locke joined Employees at Alcoa for Gay and Lesbian Transgendered Equity, an employee resource group nicknamed EAGLE. Locke and a colleague started a hub of EAGLE at the Pittsburgh research and development center where they worked, and for which Locke earned the greater Pittsburgh area dignity and respect award.
Locke also joined EAGLE’s global recruiting efforts, attending conferences to engage with students and prospective hires.
Locke often gets asked why she chose EAGLE rather than Alcoa’s women’s network for her advocacy.
“While life as a woman scientist is not perfect nor fully equitable, there are other people with far less than I have,” Locke said, adding that in more than half of the states in the United States, an individual may be fired for being gay or transgendered.
“I didn’t have to worry about getting fired, but there are people I worked with who could,” Locke said. “If you make life good for the people who are most oppressed, you will make life good for everybody. Let’s not worry about the least aggrieved. Let’s worry about the most aggrieved and go after that.”
Like many people who engage in advocacy and DEI work, Locke feels compelled to make the path easier not only for people like herself but for people who have it even harder. When discussing her advocacy and DEI, Locke often returns to the road and path metaphor. It holds meaning for Locke, who understands all she has achieved with others’ support and how it might have all turned out very different.
Locke’s innate tenacity helped her succeed. Locke recalled times when people told her “I’m surprised you’re smart because you’re a girl” or “you can’t go to grad school because you’ll fail” or “you should prioritize your husband’s career because you have kids” or “going to graduate school will make you overqualified for any job.” Locke learned to push those hurtful comments aside.
“Because I’m a pretty optimistic and positive person, I don’t let that stuff affect me,” Locke said. “I don’t have to react in a sad way or a way that diminishes my ability to do something. I can choose to ignore bad advice and move on with my life. This ability has helped me excessively well.
“When things outside your control are influencing you, telling you not to do this or that you can’t do that, that takes away from your mental load and makes it harder to succeed,” Locke said. “I think everyone deserves a fair shot. No one should be stopped because they don’t have the ability to block out messages that are self-defeating.”
Locke didn’t really become a high achiever academically until middle school. When Locke was a young girl, her parents divorced; and through that process of change and resettling, grades in elementary school of C average with some F’s sprinkled in, eventually went to all A’s in a single semester in junior high school. It took her mother seeing her potential, a total leaving behind of an unhealthy friend group, and nagging from her then four parents to help her push to her potential. In the end, Locke earned a Bachelor of Arts in physics from Wittenberg University, a liberal arts college in Locke’s home state of Ohio, where she had earned a scholarship to attend.
“Reflecting on that period of my life, I learned that you need your environment to work with you,” Locke said. “I want other people to have that, too.”
Locke has benefited from supportive and nurturing environments throughout her career, including her first job out of college. She worked for a year at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in the materials and manufacturing area at the Air Force Research Lab. The people Locke worked with introduced her to materials science and encouraged her to go to graduate school.
One of her Air Force colleagues recommended her to UVA materials science and engineering professor Richard Gangloff, Emeritus Ferman W. Perry Professor of materials science and engineering, whom she met while interviewing during her application process.
Gangloff was especially amused by Locke’s story explaining why the landing gear of fighter jets parked at the base kept collapsing. The mystery was solved when someone noticed that to the guard dogs, the landing gear looked very similar to a fire hydrant. “Rick and I bonded over failure analysis,” Locke said.
Locke conducted her dissertation research at UVA’s Center for Electrochemical Science and Engineering, focusing on corrosion and environmental cracking with Gangloff. Center co-directors John Scully, Charles Henderson Chaired Professor of materials science and engineering and Rob Kelly, AT&T Professor of Engineering and professor of materials science and engineering, were constant mentors and gave her advice along the way. Locke conducted experiments to understand why metals go through degradation due to corrosion, with an eye toward more sustainable materials.
“Most metals are happier when they take an oxide form, their thermodynamically stable form to go back to their natural state,” Locke said. “You have to find ways to keep them metallic in order to maintain long-term sustainable use. My research can be used for aircraft, automotive, and naval structures, depending on the needs.”
Throughout her doctoral studies, Locke often expressed the desire to return home, describing Ohio State as her dream job. Scully told the corrosion faculty at Ohio State that Locke wanted to work there someday.
“John and Rob were really encouraging,” Locke said. “When I was at Alcoa, they gave me great advice on how to stay relevant. They encouraged me to apply for the faculty position at Ohio State when it opened up.”
Locke was five weeks pregnant when she interviewed. She got the job at the Fontana Corrosion Center. Locke was also one half of a tandem couple. Her husband Landon, who earned his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from UVA, is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Fontana Laboratories.
Locke has remained fully engaged in DEI not only in The Minerals, Metals and Materials Society but also in her faculty and mentor role at Ohio State
The return home has opened up new opportunities for Locke to help young people find their own paths to study materials science in college and graduate school.
“I got into materials science through sheer dumb luck, because one person chose my application package for a summer internship at the Air Force after I graduated college,” Locke said. “The funny part is that the town I grew up in, Massillon, Ohio, is steel central. But I was already on my job at Ohio State when I found out through an NSF panel that people with degrees and even Ph.D.s in materials science work at a Timken Steel R&D center right in my home town. Growing up, I didn’t know materials science existed and my stepfather was an accountant at Republic Steel.
“How did I grow up in a town, finish top 10 in my high school graduating class, and have no idea that material science was a field, or what a college professor looks like? There are really awesome kids growing up in a city that has Ph.D.s in materials science sitting there. There is a whole wealth of awesomeness out there waiting to be tapped.”
Locke is using funding from her NSF CAREER award to conduct outreach to university and high school students in a way that allows her to balance work and family life, as she and her husband raise their two children. Locke has formed a partnership with the Wittenberg University Department of Physics to recruit a student to work in her lab and interact with graduate students. To reach high school students, Locke has adopted a train-the-trainer approach, inviting a high school teacher into her lab to see what research is like and to develop a lab module with a cool experiment in corrosion and materials science.
“Enabling a teacher to share this knowledge with high school students year after year will have a much wider and long-lasting impact than what I could ever hope to do by myself,” Locke said.