Sisters in Science

Story originally published by The Ames Laboratory.

Is your sister like a best friend? Is your best friend like a sister? Can she help you with your chem lab? “All of these things,” said Emma and Molly White and Ru-Shyan and Ru-Huey Yen, a pair of twin sisters and close friends who met in high school 16 years ago.

Flash forward to today, and the four all have science-based careers. Emma White is a materials scientist here at Ames Laboratory, her sister Molly is an engineer at NASA, and the Yens chose architecture and medicine as their fields. But the four look back at their shared-sisterhood-times-two as vital in getting them to where they are today.

“We did a lot of bonding as friends and as twin sisters,” said Ru-Shyan about their studies at Central Academy and Lincoln High School in Des Moines, Iowa. “You weren’t in that challenging class all by yourself. It was easy to study hard and learn more when you had your sister and best friends alongside you doing the exact same things.”

The girls were also somewhat of a phenomenon at Ames Laboratory’s Regional High School Science Bowl competitions in the early 2000s–four girls, two sets of identical twins, best friends, making up most of a science bowl competition team. They even took home a third place finish in the state their senior year. Only they didn’t think they were any big deal.

“During competition the other team and judges would look up at us and go, ‘hey, look at all the twins!’” said Molly. “But we and our classmates never thought about it being all that unusual, because we were so used to being seen together everywhere we went at school.”

As adults they translated their love of science in school into careers that uniquely suit them as individuals, including Ru-Shyan, who ultimately pursued a career as an architect, now with LMN Architects in Seattle. She attended Wheaton College in Massachusetts, followed by a Masters of Architecture from the Yale School of Architecture, and a Masters of Environmental Management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

“Ultimately I knew the process of engineering something just wasn’t enough for me,” she said. “I needed to approach it more from the creative side. I found a way to merge art and creativity with the more grounded applied knowledge of science in my current career. In architecture we are trying to solve large-scale problems that exist between society and the environment, and do it in a creative way that takes environmental science into consideration.”

For her sister, Ru-Huey, a career in the sciences meant medical school. She is currently completing her residency program at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. She also attended Wheaton with a major in Biology and English, followed by medical school at Temple University, and a post-doctoral research fellowship in myofascial pain syndrome with the National Institutes of Health.

“My high school biology teacher was a phenomenal instructor, and knowing how the natural world worked fascinated me,” said Ru-Huey. “But the humanities were also important, and I read the writings of physicians. That really influenced me. That human connection, having meaningful interactions with others, is what drove my choice to pursue medicine.”

Emma White was drawn to materials science and engineering after high school, and now works as a post-doctoral researcher at the Ames Laboratory’s Division of Materials Science and Engineering, where she specializes in high-pressure gas atomization of metals. She completed her Ph.D. in materials science and engineering at Iowa State University in 2014.

“I had always loved chemistry more than any other subject in science when I was in high school. But I came to Iowa State’s College of Engineering on a campus visit, and was blown away by the materials science demonstrations,” said Emma.  “I have a strong need to be hands-on and do applied science, and this was the way to go with my chemistry background – shiny things.” Molly developed an interest in aerodynamics, and now works as an engineer at the NASA Johnson Space Center on the Orion spacecraft. She has a degree in aerospace engineering from Iowa State University.

“We’re doing studies and simulations on the atmospheric lift and drag and the heating of the surface of the spacecraft as it exits and enters the atmosphere,” said Molly. “This is supersonic and hypersonic flight, and the study of it is absolutely fascinating. It’s exciting to come to work every day.”

All of the women credit those early relationships of twin sisterhood and friendship for their individual success, from those early days of high school to now.

“We all had each other to help with homework, to ask questions all through high school. It was a tight-knit group that helped see us through,” said Emma. “We stayed in touch as we went our own way in college and beyond, and we valued and kept that reference point. We were all going through challenges, we still are. Knowing that helps us meet our own.”

“We were each a twin and understood the pressure of being compared to each other by other people,” said Molly. “On the one hand it pushed us to do better. But we also knew we were individuals with our own strengths.  The friendship gave us the ability to recognize and support that.”

It’s a lesson all said they’d encourage in other young women to consider in their education—follow interests, find a passion, and the right career will begin to emerge. Being able to do it with the support of friends and family is a gift.

“We’re all very different people who pursued our natural curiosity about the world in very different ways,” said Ru-Huey.  “It took us very different directions. It’s part of what makes our friendship so enjoyable and enduring at the same time.”