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The Wonder of Small Things

MVA Scientific Consultants provides expertise in particle identification and materials characterization using electron and light microscopy....focusing, as they put it "on the science of small things." It's no wonder, then, that MVA is proud to tout a new employee who specializes in exploring the microscopic world.

Whitney B. Hill (pictured left), who joined MVA in October as a research scientist, prepares and analyzes environmental samples for identification and characterization using Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM), work that grew out of a fascination with rocks that goes all the way back to childhood. After she took an earth science class in high school, she was hooked: She knew she wanted to become a geologist.

Geologically Focused

Hill finished high school in Petersburg, Virginia, when she was just 16 years old. Looking forward to college, her fascination with rocks prompted her to choose the geology program at Old Dominion University (ODU), in Norfolk, because of its small size and "one-on-one" attention from professors. Another important incentive to attend ODU was a program designed to help minority students make an easy transition from high school to college. Hill says, "I was chosen to participate in the Summer Transition Program (STP) at ODU, a program that allowed incoming freshman minority students to experience college life before the semester actually started. I lived on campus and took introductory college courses. The experience was very beneficial."

As an undergraduate, Hill traveled the region--West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia--to study rock formations. She also participated in a major research project that resulted in the publication of a peer-reviewed journal article. "The title of the project was 'The Melting of Pelitic Schists' and it was done in conjunction with the Keck Geology Foundation. We completed an in-depth study on the formation of Pelitic Schists, a type of rock that stretches from Massachusetts to Vermont," Hill recalls.

Even after she graduated in 2000 with a B.S. in geology, Hill didn't know what branch of geology she wanted to specialize in. It wasn't until she landed a job with AmeriSci, formerly known as Scientific Laboratories, Inc., that she realized she wanted to work with microscopes and do forensic geology.

Whitney Hill at work using TEM. Photo courtesy of MVA Scientific Consultants

When she applied for a job at AmeriSci, the director of the lab was looking for someone with a degree in geology to study asbestos-associated minerals. Hill explains: "These minerals were mined and put into various materials we use today, such as floor tile and insulation material because of its fireproof capabilities. It wasn't discovered until later that these certain minerals, in their asbestiform state, were carcinogenic." Hill's background in geology helped her understand how to identify these minerals, but her TEM training after she began working for AmerSci gave her a new and valuable skill.

Hill enjoyed her time at AmeriSci, and she was grateful to the company for introducing her to her current specialty, forensic geology. Nevertheless, she had always planned to return to graduate school, so after sixteen months at AmeriSci, Hill left the company to pursue a master's degree in geology at Georgia State University. While in school, she interned with MVA Scientific Consultants. When Hill received her master's degree in 2004, MVA Scientific Consultants was looking for a TEM specialist. She jumped at the opportunity.

A Strong Support Network

Hill credits God and her parents, Floyd and Sara Hill, as the reasons for her success. Her parents fed her curiosity by buying books about rocks and minerals and her first microscope. She says, "My parents always stressed family, church, and education. I am the only child and the first in my immediate family to graduate from college and receive a graduate degree."

In addition to her parents, special high school teachers Mrs. Sims (earth science) and Mrs. Williams (algebra) helped by encouraging her and spending extra time with her whenever she needed it.

TEM image of soot isolated from a dust sample.Photo courtesy of MVA Scientific Consultants.

Hill also had two professional role models, Leslie and Peter Radcliff, Jr., a sister and brother tandem who both received B.S. and M.S. degrees in physics. She grew up admiring them and seeing how they overcame the obstacles they faced because they were African American. "I consider them my big sister and brother," she says. "They beat the odds and always encouraged other young people, including me, to be successful."

Advice for Minority Students

Hill's advice to students of color who want to succeed in science is to acquire good analytical skills and learn to pay attention to details. She also advocates taking advantage of opportunities outside of the classroom--internships, science clubs, and other programs. In her case, one great extramural opportunity was the Keck Geological Foundation program, which she participated in1998. "It is not a program just for minorities, but I was encouraged to participate because I was a minority involved in geological science. This program gives students the opportunity to work on real research projects in different parts of the world, present their research, and publish their findings. I believe this is an excellent program for those interested in geology and interested in gaining real experience doing geological work."

Although Hill has a fulfilling professional life, she stresses the importance of personal time. "I make sure that I have 'me' time. I do things for my personal enjoyment outside of work such as exercising, socializing with friends, and also church, which brings about balance in my life."

Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet and may be reached at

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