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dePolo performing a mini-pH test of a paper sample from a book. Photo Credit: Megan Zins

There and Back Again: A Former Junior Fellow’s Journey

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The following is a guest post by Gwen dePolo, a preservation scientist in the Preservation Research and Testing Division (PRTD) at the Library of Congress.

I learned about the field of heritage science during my time as a Junior Fellow at the Library of Congress in 2015. During that summer, I worked in PRTD on collecting data to assess the effectiveness of slight variations in conservation treatments for documents that had iron gall ink on them. Towards the end of the internship, my supervisors, Lynn Brostoff and Cindy Connelly Ryan, were able to bring a Schubert manuscript from the music division to the lab for analysis of the inks used on the manuscript. That experience was really the spark that started my interest in pursuing heritage science as a career.

Four women stand around a table with cups on it with their arms draped around eachothers shoulders.
From left to right: Aviva Mazurek, Cindy Connelly Ryan, Lynn Brostoff, and Gwen dePolo celebrating the completion of the Junior Fellows Program in 2015. Photo Credit: Our lovely waiter!


After my internship, I added a museum studies minor to my already busy load of dual bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and music, and a minor in mathematics at the University of Nevada, Reno. Through my museum studies minor, I was able to intern at local museums and historical societies in Reno to learn more about collections care, collections management, environmental monitoring, and emergency response and mitigation for flooding. I finished my bachelor’s degrees in 2018 and knew that I wanted to pursue graduate work and find more opportunities to work in heritage science.

Through many discussions with professors in chemistry and anthropology, museum directors, and a couple of local conservators, I ended up deciding to start research towards my doctorate at Northwestern University in materials science and engineering. I like to think of materials science as the intersection of chemistry, physics, and mechanical engineering, where the focus is understanding how a material’s structure and properties affect how it is used. My research was diving really deeply into understanding how drying oils transition from a liquid to a solid film and how the chemical and mechanical properties of the oil impact the long-term stability of the oil films.

As I was finishing my joint doctoral degree in the fall of 2022, I started looking for postdoctoral and full-time positions as a scientist at a museum. I knew that I wanted to find this type of job but was pretty certain that I would be moving a lot between short-term positions for several years before finding a permanent position. I saw the position for a preservation scientist at the Library of Congress posted around that time, applied, and am very grateful that I was selected for the job. I still have moments where I almost cannot believe that I am back here working at the Library.

Currently, I am helping with a smattering of projects within PRTD to become more familiar with the scope of research happening. I am also working on starting up a longer research project focused on understanding parchment degradation. One of my favorite projects to work on is preparing pigment reference paint outs. There are some quite fun colors and it is fascinating to connect how well a pigment interacts with a binding medium to the chemistry of the pigment.

For people who are interested in pursuing heritage science, I would strongly encourage trying to establish a connection with a scientist at a museum or a professor who works closely with a museum. When I was looking for a job, some of the scientists with whom I had made those connections were sending me notifications or job postings to make sure I had seen them.

Outside of work, I love to read, knit and crochet, bike, and rock climb. I also enjoy spending time with my two cats, Dusk and Dawn, as well as my soon-to-be husband, Sam (we are getting married on May 25th of this year). One thing that my coworkers may not know about me was that I had a brief stint where I performed with a circus troupe. During high school and my undergraduate studies, I was a sad clown violinist, accompanying acrobats and performers in Le Cirque Vagabond.

To find out more about the Library’s collections and the preservation activities necessary to keep the largest library in the world available, be sure to subscribe to this blog and check back weekly!





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