Elsa Cordova - Heritage In Her DNA
By Andrea McCoy
With a heart for chemistry and biology and a keen mind for the scientific process, Heritage University alumna Elsa Cordova (B.S., Environmental Science, 1995) loves going to work every day. She’s been part of the scientific community at Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL) since graduating from Heritage nearly 15 years ago.
PNNL is located in Richland, Washington, and is one of ten U.S. Department of Energy (D.O.E.) national laboratories. Engineers and scientists like Cordova conduct research supporting the D.O.E. and other governmental agencies as well as industry and universities, primarily in the areas of energy, the environment and national security.
For her part, Cordova spends time with some of the smallest living things on the planet. She is a level II scientist whose current work assignment is to study the complicated DNA of microorganisms. Her days are spent in the lab cutting and cloning DNA from microscopic specimens collected from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and then growing colonies of duplicates.
According to Cordova, the work is challenging and exciting and something entirely different from other projects she has done since joining the organization. Until about 18 months ago, she spent more time in chemistry labs working in areas like water analysis.
“I was the nerd growing up,” Cordova said with a laugh. “I’ve always loved learning new things, something different. Now it’s cool to be a nerd.”
Growing up in Wapato, Washington, Cordova is the first of her extended family to attend and graduate from a university. After graduating from Wapato High School in 1979, Cordova moved to Spokane, Washington, to attend Whitworth College. But after two years and no decision on a major, Cordova moved back home to reevaluate. Ten years, a husband, four children and several moves later, Cordova, along with her husband, decided to get herself back into school to finish her degree.
“My husband and I just looked at each other one day and said, ‘We can keep doing this or we can make a change,’” Cordova said. “It was that simple. We just couldn’t take care of our family on the track we were on. Something had to give.”
She enrolled at Heritage in the fall of 1992. Eager to learn and motivated to quickly fulfill her general requirements, Cordova signed up for a geology class taught by instructor Mark Murphy, a PNNL research scientist and adjunct faculty member.
“It was one of the best classes I ever took,” she said. “He was engaging, full of knowledge and took our class on great field trips. We would load up in vans and drive all over the place. We even took a tour at PNNL. I stuck with the sciences after that and never looked back.”
Cordova’s resolve to become a scientist was further cemented by the mentorship of another PNNL scientist and loaned professor, Dr. Cheryl Young. The fact that Young was a distinguished scientist and a woman inspired Cordova to pursue her passion. She completed an internship at PNNL, receiving hands-on training with other research scientists like Young.
Today, Cordova is the one who is encouraging future scientists to go for their dreams. In addition to her lab work, she mentors students participating in PNNL internships. Cordova loves taking her nieces, nephews and grandchildren for tours of the Heritage campus. She is a strong advocate for higher education.
“I’m always looking for ways to expose my friends, family and community to what is possible out there,” Cordova said. “People can’t even imagine what the possibilities are, but they are right here.”