By Tiffany Whitfield

Kathy McCormick is an accomplished expert in nuclear physics whose work has taken her all over the globe, but her love for physics took on a new meaning after she received a Ph.D. in physics from Old Dominion University.

"After I graduated, I was a visiting researcher in France at the Centre Energie Atomique outside of Paris," said McCormick. After coming back to America, she held several postdoctoral research positions and she continued her research at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, Jefferson Lab. "I was also an adjunct assistant professor at ODU, and I taught an introductory physics course," said McCormick. Her world changed after the terrorists' attacks on September 11, 2001, and she felt compelled to help the country using her expertise. "I searched for a scientific position in homeland security research and I started at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)." Her work involved scanning cargo for radiation that entered the country to ensure public safety from any potential smuggled radioactive material.

At ODU, McCormick did research in the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility at Jefferson Lab. Her joint project allowed McCormick to work alongside scientists who trained her how to perform data analysis work in nuclear physics. "It was a very close-knit group, because the department was rapidly expanding to work at CEBAF, so I met many interesting and influential people," said McCormick.

Having a Ph.D. in physics from ODU has helped McCormick. "It wasn't only class work, I was in a laboratory working almost every day for the majority of my thesis," said McCormick. As part of that work, she built radiation detectors, collected real data from equipment, and was trained to run complex equipment and in radiation safety. "All of those things I learned in graduate school at ODU, I use very often in my current position," said McCormick. "Also, because I have a Ph.D. I'm recognized as an expert in my field and I'm called on to answer questions that arise in my area of expertise."

McCormick's expertise has earned her a number of prestigious awards. In 2013, she received a Special Recognition Award for deploying with the Hurricane Sandy response team to New York and New Jersey. "That was the most challenging time I've ever had on an assignment, because there was extensive damage, so it was very difficult to get access to food, shelter, and gas," said McCormick. "I learned a lot about being prepared to respond to emergencies from that project." In 2015, she received the Secretary's Award for Excellence along with a team of colleagues from the federal government for her work on streamlining the government's radiation detection program and making the systems more sensitive to threats and less sensitive to generating alarms from benign radioactive materials. Most recently, she received a unit citation in 2018 with a team of colleagues for the testing, certification and deployment of a new generation of radiation detection equipment.

McCormick's work with the federal government has brought her full circle. "My work today mainly focuses on large x-ray machines and detectors for identifying smuggled contraband, such as drugs and other chemicals," said McCormick. Before the pandemic, she was traveling around the United States, collecting data in various places. "That's one of the things I really like about my position, the ability to travel and work outside or in different facilities rather than being in a single office all the time," said McCormick. She credits various faculty from ODU to her success. "I really enjoyed working and interacting with all of the professors I met at ODU at the time I was there in the 1990's," said McCormick.