To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re introducing you to the extraordinary women of the National Systematics Laboratory. Dive in and meet Museum Technician La’Shaun Willis!
The Road Less Traveled
“I’ve learned that the work that I do has real impacts. It’s not just a traditional job, it’s really more of a career,” says La’Shaun Willis, a Museum Technician with the National Systematics Lab. “Working in this field is not as intimidating as it looks in school. The hard work really pays off.”
Willis is a proud alumna of Bennett College, a historically Black college for women in Greensboro, North Carolina. She graduated with a degree in chemistry—but she might have taken a different path if not for the influence of one of her professors, Dr. Susan Curtis.
“I remember struggling in the early general chemistry classes, and going to Dr. Curtis to discuss changing my major to psychology. Dr. Curtis wasn’t having any of it. She said, ‘Go back to your dorm room and think about this—how many African American women are in chemistry?’” Willis recalls. “I did think about it, and I realized: not many.” Chemistry had been one of Willis’ passions since high school, and she realized she wasn’t ready to give up on it. “Dr. Curtis told me, ‘It’ll be hard, but you can do it.’ I’m really grateful for that,” Willis says.
After her sophomore year, Willis had the opportunity to attend a summer program at Tulane University for students interested in pursuing a dual MD/PhD degree. Despite the program’s emphasis on the medical and health sciences, Willis found herself increasingly drawn to the more environmentally focused offerings. “I was able to shadow doctors, and that was fine, but the days that I was most excited about were the ones where we were able to go into the field to collect water samples,” Willis says. “That’s when I realized that I didn’t want to go to medical school, I actually wanted to pursue environmental science.”
After graduating from Bennett, Willis returned home to Washington, D.C. and took additional courses in environmental science, further cementing her interest in a career in the field. She heard about an open position with the National Systematics Lab from one of her professors, decided to apply, and has been with the lab since then.
Inspiring the Next Generation
Willis often reflects on her early struggles in chemistry, and how the narratives that we tell ourselves and others about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics being “too difficult” can negatively impact students’ interest in these subjects. It’s one of the reasons why she is so passionate about breaking down those barriers to STEM, especially for children and young adults.
Since joining the National Systematics Lab, Willis has become involved with the NOAA chapter of Blacks in Government, an organization dedicated to advocating for the welfare of Black employees in all levels of government. Willis has particularly enjoyed the platform that the organization has given her to encourage young peoples’ curiosity about the sciences. “Being a part of Blacks in Government has allowed me to connect with high school and college students who are interested in science, which has been really meaningful for me,” Willis says.
Willis has also volunteered for NOAA Kids Day for several years, and has judged science fairs held by a local elementary school at the NOAA Science Center in Silver Spring, Maryland.
“One of the best parts of my summer program with Tulane was being surrounded by kids who looked like me and were also interested in science,” she reflects. “Now, as an African American woman in science, I’m able to facilitate outreach programs as part of my job. I can bring specimens from the sea and field work into local schools to share with students. I was able to do that in my daughter’s school, and now she’s in electrical engineering. I hope young people see me in this field and know that they can do it, too. I push all kids to give science a chance. Even if they say they hate it, I try to encourage them to stick with it, as science is a central part of our everyday lives.”
Always Learning and Growing
Willis feels extremely fortunate to be part of the National Systematics Lab, where she is always surrounded by fellow pioneering women in STEM. “It’s great to see women of various backgrounds and ethnic groups be passionate about science. No matter where you come from, we all connect through science. Everyone is coming at it from a different approach.”
For Willis, that approach often involves a lot of behind-the-scenes work. As a Museum Technician, her responsibilities vary widely. Sometimes she is unpacking and processing loans of the Smithsonian’s marine fish collections alongside Dr. Abigail Reft, while other days she is doing radiographs for the lab’s research zoologists. “With science, you nurture it, you watch it grow, and you publish results, but you’re never really finished. It’s such a dynamic field. There’s always something new,” says Willis.
“Angela Bassett said: ‘Don’t settle for average. Bring your best to the moment. Then, whether it fails or succeeds, at least you know you gave it all you had. We need to live the best that’s in us,'” Willis says of her favorite quote—and there’s no doubt that she certainly has not settled for average in her own career. “I really love this job. I don’t come to work with a briefcase or dressy clothing, I come with a book bag,” she says. “It’s like going to school every day. You’re constantly learning and discovering something new.”