Meet Circe Verba, Ph.D.

From participant to mentor: NETL researcher aims to inspire next generation of scientists

As a former participant in an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) fellowship program, Circe Verba, Ph.D., knows firsthand the important role a mentor can play in the development of a young scientist. That’s why Verba, now a research geologist at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) facility in Albany, Oregon, feels compelled to give back and serve as a mentor to aspiring researchers.

“I feel it is my duty to engage in STEM education,” she said. “Not only does being an ORISE mentor allow me to grow as an individual, but it is so rewarding to encourage the next generation of scientists.”

Verba’s interest in science was piqued at a young age. Inspired by science communicators and television personalities Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, she developed a passion for learning and understanding the world around her. That curiosity led her to the field of geology. As an undergraduate and master’s student, she studied planetary geology, with an emphasis on physics, exploring Martian slope streaks and dust devils.

In 2009, after receiving her master’s degree from Northern Arizona University, she accepted an ORISE postgraduate fellowship at NETL to assist in microanalysis of geological and cementitious materials. As Verba put it, “I traded a high-resolution camera intended for studying the Martian landscape for an electron microscope to study microscopic features.”

Her first mentor at NETL, Bill O’Connor, had a big impact on her growth as a scientist and encouraged her to expand her geologic knowledge. “Having the right mentor is important,” she said. “A mentor who is there to help a young scientist evolve is invaluable.”

Following her ORISE fellowship, she transferred to a federal internship program at NETL, and, in 2013, she earned her doctoral degree in geology and civil engineering at the University of Oregon.

Now entering her fifth year as an ORISE mentor, Verba focuses on research projects related to carbon storage and gas recovery in terms of well integrity and characterization. “We work with state-of-the-art visualization and analysis instruments and software to produce 2-D and 3-D images,” Verba explained. “The goal is to better understand static or dynamic rock properties related to material performance and resource production.”

Verba has mentored a range of ORISE participants at NETL, from undergraduates to faculty members. “Working with university faculty results in a strong collaboration in combining knowledge sets,” she said. “Junior scientists to postdocs provide support and expertise on projects, such as advanced geochemical background on rare earth elements.”

For Verba, helping a participant learn and grow over the course of an appointment is particularly gratifying. “I love to see the excitement and the ‘lightbulb’ moments when fellows understand a concept,” she said. “In addition, I love to have scientific discussions about how we can take the research to the next step.”

When she’s not conducting research or serving as a mentor, Verba enjoys designing LEGO sets, brick by brick, as a way to get young people interested in science. Her first set depicted geologists in the field and laboratory, and it included an electron microscope based on the one she uses at NETL. She collaborated on another set that featured NASA’s Saturn V rocket used for Apollo missions and the Skylab space station.