CLEVELAND — Ever since she was a little girl, Dr. Lyndsey 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 off to further her education. Today, she works at NASA Glenn Research Center, where her work on perovskites may one day fuel space exploration.
Growing up in Russel, Ohio, McMillon-Brown was a self proclaimed “tinkerer,” recalling watching her father repair cars in their garage, and learning from her mother, a science teacher. She describes her younger self as a bit “counterculture,” gravitating more toward sports and dirt than the “traditional” paths little girls are often expected to pursue, and finding interest in math and science.
“I owe that to my parents who kind of made me feel that I could do anything,” she said. “I was already charged to think that there were no limitations on me because I was a girl, or no limitations on me because I was a Black girl, so I felt that I could do anything.”
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Dr. McMillon-Brown stayed true to herself and her interests, fostering an early passion for STEM. She graduated from the Hawken School, and was on to Miami University in Ohio, chasing a career in medicine, until an experience in research opened her eyes to a new career path.
“I was doing research as an engineer, and that was something that 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 more to give, and that I could make a bigger impact as a researcher. And I didn't think I could make the same impact as a medical doctor. So that was the deciding factor.”
Dr. McMillon-Brown was on a new path, also inspired by an internship at NASA that had her working with solar cells, devices she said “harvest the sun’s energy” and use it to produce electricity.
“So I did promise my mom, 'I’ll still 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 to chemical engineering because I really wanted to get specifically trained in solar cells.”
Dr. McMillon-Brown was drawn to solar cells, able to use her interest in STEM alongside her creative side. She was also excited to be able to do work she hoped would help the environment by “working on solar and helping us with the energy crisis,” while furthering NASA’s mission of exploring space.
“Solar power is even more necessary in space because there are no power outlets on the moon. So when we get there, we need to bring a power source with us,” she said. “They're really helpful for us as we try to look to more clean energy -- or environmentally friendly ways to supply our energy demand.”
While her sights were set on NASA, the road to get there wasn’t always easy. But Dr. McMillon-Brown said having something she wanted to achieve in mind helped her through.
“It was a really arduous path. Graduate school was difficult, and becoming a subject matter expert took a lot of work and dedication,” she said. “But I would say that having NASA as my goal and my finish line really helped to motivate me when times got tough, because I was working towards something bigger.”
While today she’s an accomplished doctor and research electrical engineer, Dr. McMillon-Brown experienced her share of road bumps, including people who doubted her abilities. She said she overcame those challenges by relying on people in her life who did believe in her, and “having more positive voices in my mind than negative ones.”
Those supporters and mentors have helped guide and support her throughout her career, especially in an industry she said has been traditionally made up of white men.
“The landscape is largely male and it is largely white,” she said. “However, I've been fortunate enough to find mentors and advocates along the way that helped me to navigate, and still feel like I belong and to find my place in that community.”
Now, it’s McMillon-Brown’s goal to keep that support going, paying it forward by supporting others.
“I try to be present and do a lot of outreach in the community and show people that I am what a scientist looks like, and I am what a researcher looks like,” she said. “So there's definitely room for all of us. We need all the bright minds, all the creativity, all the different viewpoints that we can get to solve these really difficult problems.”
These days, the problems capturing Dr. McMillon-Brown’s attention revolve around perovskites, a new class of solar cells she describes as lighter weight and more flexible than traditional materials.
“The amazing thing about this technology is they can actually be manufactured in space,” she said. “So we're working on making a way such that you could take a small container of your initial materials with you, and then when you get there, you would print them out, almost like how we would print newspapers now.”
An added bonus to this work is that Dr. McMillon-Brown can do it from her home state. Growing up in Ohio, she’s grateful to be close to family again.
“I have a deep pride for this city, and a love for the land and for the people in it,” she said. “So to be home, to enjoy the foods and sights and sounds that I grew up with, and have proximity to my family and to do pioneering research is a wonderful thing.”
Through her cutting-edge work at NASA Glenn and her desire to show others that they can accomplish their dreams, Dr. McMillon-Brown said she hopes the next generation knows there are no limits.
“Some people say this sky is the limit, but I am living a life that I couldn't have even dreamed of when I was at Space Camp -- and it's even better than I could have conceived,” she said. “So I would say, don't put any limitations on yourself. Surround yourself by positive people who are uplifting, who believe in you, and support your life's work and your mission. And go for it.”
Editor's note: Video in the player above was originally published in an unrelated story on March 18, 2023.