Life After JILA with Clara Wilson

Submitted by kennac on Fri, 09/24/2021 - 12:11 pm

Photo of former JILAn Clara Wilson

Image Credit
Clara Wilson

There are many places within JILA that are special to alumni. For many, it may be the JILA tower, or a particular laboratory, or the spiral staircase. For others, like Clara Wilson, it is the machine shop. "I was at JILA for a little over a year and a half," Wilson said. "I worked in the machine shop as a student assistant, which basically meant that I kept the space clean and operable and was able to shadow and learn everything I could from the various machinists there... I helped build things. I think that as a student assistant, one of my main jobs was to ask questions and learn." Wilson gained valuable knowledge and experience working within the machine job at JILA.

Wilson didn't originally expect to work in the machine shop. "I had never been exposed to machining or manufacturing before, even though I was an undergraduate in mechanical engineering at the time. And I remember just being completely in awe, when I visited the first time, and it felt like a playground. I hadn't been exposed to that before, It really showed me what I wanted to do, and that was creation and machining." Wilson flourished in her time at JILA, helping researchers design and build customizable tools for their experiments.
In transitioning from JILA, Wilson became a staff engineer in the machine shop of the physics department of Columbia University. Wilson credited her connections at JILA for helping her get the position. "JILA and JILAns were directly responsible for getting me this job. Not only in the application process, but in the initial connections. I listed several machinists as references for when I applied for my current job. It is something I am going to always be really grateful for."

Wilson was able to use the skills she acquired at JILA to succeed in her current job. She helped transition Columbia's machine shop into something more user-friendly. "What we're doing now is we're transitioning from a machine shop space, much like what JILA has, where the researchers request a tool and machinists will work with them from start to finish on designing to manufacturing, and manufacture it for them. Instead, we're transitioning to a makerspace. This is a space where researchers can come in and actually create their own pieces, and I am just facilitating the student and researcher use of the space. So, I will show them how not to kill themselves on the heavy machinery and then just say: 'go forth, and don't kill yourself.'" From Wilson's expertise, researchers were able to learn how to craft customizable tools for their work. Wilson also emphasized the importance of getting to know the machinists. For researchers, this can be especially helpful when needing help later on a project. 

In Wilson's own experience, she found that networking can help current JILAns find successful future careers. "Network like crazy," Wilson emphasized. "It is really beneficial because you're actually speaking to people and people generally want to help." She also mentioned: "don't be afraid of job applications or qualification expectations that you don't meet. Definitely talk to people who have worked with you in the past, like old professors, as they've usually more than likely interested in helping you out. And I mean, obviously, reach out to people in JILA, because JILAns are spread across the country." Wilson alluded to the importance of the community of JILA alumni for networking and career opportunities. This community continues to grow, providing more alumni to help support and encourage current JILAns who are still early in their careers.

Written by Kenna Castleberry, JILA Science Communicator

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