K. Renee Horton
The work we do as physicists impacts the future, and being on the ground floor of something that will change the future is an amazing place to be.
Growing up, Renee Horton wanted to be an astronaut. She enrolled in the Air Force ROTC and began studying to become a pilot to make that dream come true, but an annual physical delivered a devastating blow. Seventeen-year-old Renee learned that she had hearing loss that would prevent her from realizing her dream. Soon after, she discovered that she was pregnant. With these two significant events, Renee decided to drop out of school and focus on starting her family.
But something inside Renee kept pushing her to want more, to seek out challenges, and to learn everything she could. So she re-enrolled at Louisiana State University as a single mom of three kids and, with the support of her little family, she earned a B.S. in electrical engineering with a minor in math. She was then accepted to the University of Alabama for graduate school, and while there, her passion for learning took her beyond the boundaries of her electrical engineering degree.
With encouragement from her professors, Renee attended a National Society of Black Physicists conference and the experience blew her away. She remembers standing in a room full of people who looked like her, thought like her, and were comfortable displaying their intelligence. She felt like she’d found her tribe, and realized then and there that she wanted to be a physicist.
Renee pivoted her studies and went on to earn a Ph.D. in material science with a concentration in physics, making her the first African American to graduate from the University of Alabama with that degree.
While pursuing her Ph.D., Renee was awarded a NASA fellowship and wrote her dissertation on the material characterization and failure mechanisms of self-reacting friction stir welding. She became one of a few subject matter experts and oversaw the welding for the first testflight of NASA’s heavy lift rocket to send people back to the Moon, Artemis I. With dedication, tears, and a lot of hard work, she has continued to take on new challenges at NASA and grow as an engineer and scientist.
Despite her credentials, Renee has, like most people, struggled with imposter syndrome. A lifetime of facing racism, sexism, and discrimination as a Black woman with an invisible disability has forced her to work hard at convincing herself that she belongs in academic and professional STEM spaces. During the first several years of her career, she would recite a list of affirmations every day and regularly turn to her support network of friends and family, who would remind her of the incredible work she had done to get to where she was. This helped Renee gain confidence in her experiences and her expertise, and she learned to refuse to let other people tell her what she could or couldn’t do.
Renee is a champion for greater diversity and inclusion in STEM and is the founder of Unapologetically Being, Inc., a STEM advocacy and mentoring nonprofit. She is a member of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) Women in Physics Working Group and serves on several advisory boards of organizations dedicated to diversity in physics. In 2016, she was elected as President of the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) — the second woman to hold the position — and in 2017, she was elevated to NSBP Fellow.
Renee served as the Space Launch System (SLS) Quality Engineer in the NASA Residential Management Office at Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans for 11 years. In her current work as Air Worthiness Deputy for NASA’s Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstrator (EPFD) project, Renee leverages her expertise in both engineering and physics to develop hybrid electric airplanes meant to reduce the carbon footprint of air travel. She anticipates that this work will greatly affect aviation regulations and standards.
Renee is a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In her down time, she enjoys kayaking on the Bayou, collecting seashells off the beach, painting, and spending time with her 6-year-old grandson.
She lives and dies by the philosophy that, when life throws you a curveball, you are only allowed to wallow in that moment for 48 hours. The world is going to keep moving, and the longer you stay in that moment, the longer you’ll be behind. When she encounters a setback, she tells herself to take it in, let it go, and get moving.
Renee is an inspirational speaker who also runs workshops on “how to go from surviving to thriving” for college students and has authored several children’s books, including “Dr. H Explores the Universe,” “Dr. H and her Friends,” and “Dr. H Explores the ABCs.” She is an avid reader, and for young people figuring out who they want to be, she highly recommends “Purple Cow” by Seth Godin.