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Amazing Women

Career Ladder: Regina Easley

This research chemist’s career took some unexpected turns before she fell for oceanography

by Alexandra A. Taylor
December 26, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 1


Focus on education

Credit: Courtesy of Regina Easley
A photo of two young girls standing together in front of a Smithsonian Institution buliding.
Credit: Courtesy of Regina Easley

Regina Easley was raised in southern Virginia, where both of her parents grew up working on tobacco farms. Her father eventually earned his associate’s degree in electrical engineering, and her mother got her General Educational Development certificate when Easley was in high school. “She really pushed my sister and I to pursue our education,” Easley says. During their summer breaks, the sisters attended science camps and visited museums in Washington, D.C. Easley was interested in science from a young age but disliked chemistry; she was thrown for a loop when Hampton University offered her a full scholarship to major in it. During a visit to Tanzania to study natural products after her sophomore year at Hampton, Easley developed a strong interest in organic chemistry and decided to pursue a Ph.D.

A change in plans

Easley went to the University of California, Los Angeles, and settled on a research project. But then she got stuck. “I really didn’t have a concept of how to push that project to a dissertation—how to publish, how to get grants, and so forth—and I didn’t get that type of mentoring during that experience,” she says. She left UCLA after passing enough qualifying exams to get her master’s. Easley worked in private labs doing analytical chemistry for a time but was ready for a change. Her employer offered money for business or law school, and she had started studying for both the GMAT and LSAT when a friend from college called to encourage her to apply to the oceanography program at the University of South Florida. She called in sick to work to go visit the school, where she met with Ashanti Johnson, a prominent black female chemical oceanographer who inspired her to apply.

Out to sea

A photo of a woman and four men wearing jackets and standing in front of a U.S. Coast Guard ship on a foggy day.
Credit: Courtesy of Regina Easley

Easley began graduate work at USF helping develop sensors to measure factors such as pH, nitrite, and phosphate in seawater. Engineers “would make the instruments, and we would take them out to sea and test their limits for different types of chemistries,” Easley says. She spent a total of 150 days at sea, including two 30-day cruises in the Gulf of Mexico and one in the Arctic. She also took time away from her graduate program to work as a contractor collecting samples after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which she and her adviser had decided was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help with an environmental disaster.”

Credit: Courtesy of Regina Easley
A photo of a woman sitting on a cement wall in front of a lawn with her hands folded in her lap.
Credit: Courtesy of Regina Easley

Finding a niche at NIST

After graduating from USF in 2013, Easley started a two-year postdoc at the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) working to establish references for oceanographers studying seawater pH. She has remained at NIST and is now a research chemist working in an electroanalytical chemistry lab, where she helps maintain the pH standard reference material program. Looking back, she says, “I’m really glad I called in sick that day.”

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