Champaign, Ill. – Dr. Rebekah Wilson, a chemist with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL), says she found direction during her high school years when physical science and chemistry became her passions. The subjects made sense to her, and she easily found logical answers to seemingly difficult problems using math to predict reactions and create products.
That passion and comfort level with physical science and chemistry earned Wilson, who now leads the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Paint Technology Technical Center of Expertise, or PTCx, the title of the USACE Researcher of the Year at the 2020 Virtual National Awards Ceremony, Nov. 12, 2020.
Due to COVID-19, the USACE National Awards ceremony was held via webex and awardees were either presented their plaques by their supervisors or virtually.
“It means the world to me to be recognized now for my passion in my career,” she said.
Wilson joined the ERDC-CERL team in 2008 as a basic chemist. In 2014, she was given the opportunity to spearhead the CERL PTCx research and development (R&D) program.
She described how she spent hours investing in the program, developing new ideas, networking the team’s talents and searching for funding that would help the team solve the nation’s most difficult challenges.
“I spent every free moment in my schedule traveling and searching out collaborations to strengthen our program,” she said. “This snowballed in a positive way, resulting in an increase in the average R&D yearly budget, from $300K to $4M in two years — and next year we are projecting $15M. This has allowed the ability to create a diverse portfolio addressing energy efficiency, corrosion mitigation, concealment and structural strength.
“The high profile of these activities has made the Paint Technology Technical Center of Expertise even more credible, causing me to be sought after for international webinars, invitations to speak and as an advisor in major construction projects,” she said.
Wilson acknowledges that she would not have received this prestigious award if it wasn’t for the many people supporting her throughout this process. “This is not an individual award,” she said. “This recognition reflects the hard work I have done and the support of my leadership, technical directors, contracting teams, colleagues and family.”
She also feels that her path could have been different if it wasn’t for her instructors from her early days, describing her professors at Truman State University as “amazing.” She believes it was her peers and professors who helped her chose the right career path.
Wilson’s supervisor and branch chief agrees that the USACE Researcher of the Year award highlights the many accomplishments of the ERDC PTCx team as well.
“This is further proof of the great, talented people we have working here at ERDC-CERL and the PTCx,” said Vicki VanBlaricum, CERL Materials and Structures branch chief. “The PTCx, located at CERL since the early 1970s, serves the entire USACE team as the designated Technical Center of Expertise for Paints and Coatings.
“This award recognizes Dr. Wilson and the team’s accomplishments, their contributions to USACE and to the entire engineering community. Rebekah continues to distinguish herself as a talented and gifted researcher.”
Wilson encourages everyone to continue to strive for excellence and think outside the box. “Never stop being innovative,” she said. “Don’t take a ‘No’ as a stopping point, but the freedom to find a more creative solution. Do not be afraid to ask for what you need. Do not be afraid of being ‘too innovative’ or ’too crazy.’”
Wilson says that currently many fields are predominately led by males, but she encourages others to follow their passion and look into science and technology as a career, even if you are a minority in the field.
Wilson recalls telling her family about her many accomplishments at the PTCx. “I remember calling my dad, a retired union painter with over 30 years of painting experience, to tell him I would be working in the paint area,” she said. “He laughed. My brother followed him into the painting union and now his daughter would be on the ’science’ end of paint. I remember him jokingly saying, ‘If you wanted to be a painter, you could have just gone into the union. It just goes to show you, it’s in your blood. A PhD and still ended up here.’”
Wilson wants to encourage others to follow their passions. “I hope that achievements like this and the cool science that I do will help inspire people to consider STEM as a career,” she said. “I also want to emphasize that women can be successful in a ― for now — predominantly male-dominated field.
“This is a big deal in the science and technology community, because it brings to light some of the very basic, yet critical, needs of the nation,” she continued. “It brings recognition to the amazing work being done within the ERDC-CERL and while I hope to inspire others through my actions and achievements, I believe there is more I can do.
“I believe the inspiration is better fostered through mentorship; helping students and colleagues reach higher levels of their own achievements by giving them the tools to be successful and leading them down the path,” she concluded.