Angela Hight Walker: From Small-Town Dreamer to Nanoscience Leader and Mentor

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Singularities - Profiles in Physics

Angela Hight Walker: From Small-Town Dreamer to Nanoscience Leader and Mentor


Molly McDonough, Cochair, 2025 Physics and Astronomy Congress Executive Planning Committee, and PhD Student, Pennsylvania State University


Angela Hight Walker. Photo credit: NIST

Angela Hight Walker, senior scientist and project leader in the nanoscience spectroscopy group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is a strong proponent of mentorship. Over her years at NIST, Hight Walker has mentored more than a dozen postdocs and countless undergraduate and graduate students. But growing up in small-town Ohio, she didn’t have any scientist role models.

Although Hight Walker didn’t know any scientists, she enjoyed learning chemistry and physics in school. She attended college close to home, at Capital University in Bexley, Ohio, and pursued a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a minor in physics. While there, she began working on physics research projects for a faculty member who eventually helped Hight Walker get a summer research fellowship.

Hight Walker’s research experiences in college ultimately led her to graduate school at Wesleyan University, where she earned a PhD in chemical physics—with the same group she had done a summer research fellowship with as an undergraduate. Her research involved using microwave spectroscopy to probe energy-level transitions in weakly bonded gas-phase molecules, which provided insight into their structure and dipole moments. She loved working on spectroscopy, because studying the signatures of molecules you can’t see is like a puzzle, she says.

After completing her PhD, Hight Walker went on to do a postdoc at NIST in a gas-phase microwave spectroscopy group. She was familiar with the group from attending conferences as a graduate student and was thrilled to work with scientists whose talks she had been inspired by. She has been at NIST ever since.

After five years with the group, NIST made a strategic decision to decommission the gas-phase spectroscopy program. Most of Hight Walker’s colleagues were at retirement age, but as an early-career scientist, she needed to pivot. She joined a professional development program at NIST and worked in the director’s office, which allowed her to see how NIST was run and network with scientists from across the institute. As part of her role, she took the meeting notes for new programs. A particular program caught her eye in the early 2000s—a nanotechnology initiative. She put forward a plan to return to her love of spectroscopy in alignment with NIST’s new strategic goals, using Raman spectroscopy to study quantum nanomaterials.

In her new research, Hight Walker began characterizing nanotubes, then unrolling tubes to study graphene, and then moving more broadly to 2D materials. Now she studies magnetic materials. Her overall approach to this work is to add a little more complexity to systems over time. This allows her to be at the forefront of new materials systems as they are discovered.

As she does research and oversees projects, Hight Walker always makes time to invest in others. “Mentoring to me is more important than anything that I do,” she says. She hopes that when she retires, people will say that she “had an environment in the lab that was conducive to learning,” and where people were free “to try new things, to screw up, to break stuff, and to learn.”

When seeking a mentor as a student, Hight Walker recommends looking for “someone who you see treating people so well it catches your eye.”

Hight Walker has two other pieces of advice for current undergraduates. “My biggest advice is to do research. I had very little exposure to these ideas or doing research,” she says. “I couldn’t have even imagined what I’d be doing.”

Her second piece of advice? Find a community, especially if you’re a woman. “You need a community—people, friends, and colleagues,” she says. “It’s the relationships that make it all work.”


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