Berkeley Lab

Career Journeys: Qing Ji

This article first appeared in the March 6, 2024, issue of Elements

The career path for Qing Ji started at home in China. Her father, who taught at a university, shared his lectures with Qing and her brother. This early exposure to science and philosophy brought her to Berkeley Lab, where she now serves as the head of the Lab’s Accelerator Controls and Instrumentation Program in the Accelerator Technology & Applied Physics Division.

Qing credits her father with getting her interested in science. In addition to philosophy, he taught a course in scientific methods and shared his lectures with Qing and her brother when they were children. Qing attended the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei and obtained a bachelor’s and master’s in nuclear physics. That inspired her on a path of discovery and invention.

That path has led Qing to a new role as the head of the Berkeley Accelerator Controls and Instrumentation (BACI) program, part of the Accelerator Technology & Applied Physics Division. BACI develops controls and instrumentation to support the accelerator community, and Qing wants to build on that history. 

“I see us becoming an incubator for the Lab’s other divisions and programs,” she says, “as well as continuing to successfully collaborate on projects with our colleagues across the national lab complex and other institutions to improve the capabilities of today’s and future accelerators while also making them more energy-efficient and cheaper to construct and operate.”

Q: How did you decide on your current career path, and to what extent has Berkeley Lab supported you along your journey?

A: I started my career at Berkeley Lab in January 1998 as a graduate student research assistant, working on developing focused ion beam maskless lithography. In 2005, I joined the Fusion Science & Ion Beam Technology (FS&IBT) Program in the Accelerator Technology & Applied Physics Division as a research scientist after receiving my Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley and conducting postdoctoral research on an integrated focused ion beam and scanning electron microscopy dual beam system at Harvard University. I was appointed a staff scientist in 2016 and deputy head of FS&IBT in 2019. During this time, I learned to keep a growth mindset. When the opportunity to head the BACI arose, I actively pursued it. 

Throughout my tenure at the Lab, I actively pursued professional development opportunities. Participation in programs like the UC Women’s Initiative for Professional Development (UCWI) provided valuable insights and networking opportunities. At the same time, engagements such as presentations and training organized by the Lab’s Women’s Support and Empowerment Council enhanced my communication and leadership skills.

In 2016, I was appointed as a staff scientist, and in 2019, I assumed the role of deputy head of FS&IBT. These positions allowed me to contribute to various research projects and develop leadership capabilities within a collaborative environment. When the opportunity to lead BACI emerged, I leveraged my experience in multidisciplinary research, leadership, and collaboration at Berkeley Lab to secure the role successfully.

Berkeley Lab has played a pivotal role in supporting my career growth through mentorship, professional development initiatives, and a collaborative work culture. 

Qing Ji works on her research in Building 58 at Berkeley Lab. (Credit Thor Swift/Berkeley Lab)

Q: How many different jobs have you had in your career journey, and which one was the most rewarding?  Why?

A: In my career, I’ve held two distinct roles at Berkeley Lab: researcher and program head. Both positions have been incredibly rewarding, albeit in different ways.

As a researcher, I had the opportunity to dive deep into hands-on problem-solving within a multidisciplinary team of scientists, engineers, and students. The collaborative nature of the work allowed us to push the boundaries of our knowledge, constantly seeking answers to questions we hadn’t even thought to ask. 

Transitioning into the role of a program head less than six months ago has brought a new reward dimension. I am now responsible for supporting the team in exploring research directions, mentoring early-career staff, and aligning people’s interests with project goals. Seeing projects achieve positive outcomes has been incredibly fulfilling. 

Ultimately, the most rewarding aspect for me is the ability to make a tangible impact through collaborative effort, regardless of the specific role.

Q: Who was your most influential mentor – formal or informal – and how did they shape your career path?

A: Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to have had the support and guidance of numerous mentors who have played essential roles in shaping my professional development. While it’s difficult to single out one individual as the most influential mentor, I am grateful for several mentors, including Grazyna Odyniec, a senior scientist and program head at the Nuclear Science Division; former group leader Joe Kwan and former division director Steve Gourlay. They have consistently provided selfless support and guidance, extending their expertise and insights to help me navigate various challenges in my career and identify areas for developing new skills. Their patience and willingness to invest time in my professional growth have been invaluable. They’ve provided me with the space and support to address challenges at my own pace, allowing me to learn and grow in a supportive environment.

I am deeply grateful to my mentors for their support and guidance throughout my career. Their mentorship has also instilled in me a commitment to pay it forward by supporting and mentoring others in their professional journeys.

Q: What career setback or mistake has helped you to succeed or grow?

A: Throughout my career, I’ve encountered several setbacks, particularly related to funding difficulties that necessitated changes in research direction. While these transitions posed significant challenges and often made me feel like I was starting anew, they also presented valuable growth opportunities.

Each setback catalyzed my personal and professional development, forcing me to adapt and acquire new skills in different research areas. While I may have needed more depth of knowledge in a single topic than I expected, navigating these transitions provided me with a breadth of skills and expertise across different areas.

Moreover, these setbacks taught me the importance of resilience and adaptability in adversity. Rather than viewing setbacks as roadblocks, I learned to embrace them as opportunities for learning and growth. Looking back, I’ve come to appreciate that setbacks are an inevitable part of any career journey. What matters most is how we respond to these challenges and the lessons we extract from them. 

A career at Berkeley Lab offers a range of opportunities supported by training, mentorship, and career development programs. Whether you choose to build a career at the Lab or take your skills to other organizations, a career path to and at the Lab sets you up for success.

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