A Path of Lifelong Learning Comes Full Circle

Jennifer Hite, Ph.D.Lifelong learning is the idea that education should extend beyond formal settings and specific stages of life. It stresses the importance of continuous personal development. 

Personal experiences also play a crucial role in this ongoing education, offering valuable knowledge and growth opportunities. Unlike structured curricula, real-life experiences are dynamic and provide unique learning chances, especially through our challenges, successes, and failures. 

It’s those types of instances that led new Department of Materials Science & Engineering faculty member Jennifer Hite, Ph.D., to the University of Florida … and back again.  

Growing up in a military family, Hite moved around more than most, living in Germany, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Nebraska before the age of 14, and eventually landing in Florida for high school. She chose UF for her higher education because of its proximity to home and the reputation of the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering.  

“I initially pursued a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering because I thought it gave me the broadest knowledge base and the best options for career choices,” Hite said. “But about halfway through the program, I realized the main recruiters were petrochemical, chemical, and paper mill companies. With that in mind, I decided this was not my path – too loud and too dirty. 

“While working with the Particle Engineering Research Center at UF, I found a project studying the stability of slurries used to polish semiconductor surfaces. I reset my sights on a slightly different, and much cleaner, career path – semiconductors.”  

After completing her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, Hite joined Lucent Technologies’ semiconductor fabrication division in Orlando as an equipment engineer.  

“While working there, the most interesting and important part of the semiconductor manufacturing process was in the area we termed process control – understanding how the material was deposited, how to ‘tweak’ the recipes, and how those small changes impacted the final product,” Hite said. “I understood then that materials science really seemed to be the lynchpin to both understanding the processes and improving the devices.”  

That realization sparked a plan to eventually return to UF for a master’s degree in materials science and engineering. As fate would have it, corporate restructuring led to a pink slip, and Hite was back in Gainesville sooner rather than later.  

“In less than three weeks, I was back on campus and enrolled,” she said. 

While studying under Cammy Abernathy, Ph.D., the William H. Wadsworth Director of the Engineering Leadership Institute and former dean of the college, she made another career shift, this time moving away from silicon and into compound semiconductors.  

“I only intended to get my master’s degree, and then head back into industry. But I wound up loving the research aspect, received a graduate fellowship and stayed for my Ph.D.,” Hite said.  

After passing her dissertation defense and earning her doctorate, Hite had a choice between returning to industry or conducting research at a national laboratory. Still feeling the sting from her layoff, she accepted an offer from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C.  

“It was essentially a call back to my roots as a military kid,” she said. “I’d be back on a base, and my efforts would help protect the country.”  

While carrying out 16 years of impactful research and collaborating with other scientists at NRL was fulfilling, the increasing amounts of red tape, restrictions, and rising overhead costs had her thinking about changing things up again. Despite a lack of formal teaching experience, when a faculty position in electronic materials opened at UF, she decided to pursue it.  

“Coming out of graduate school, I never even considered academia, and looking back now, I realize I wasn’t ready for that move yet. First and foremost, I needed to prove to myself that I could have a successful research career,” Hite said. “With that experience now in hand, I felt more confident in my ability to research, write proposals, secure funding, and take on higher education.”  

Hite said she always enjoyed mentoring young engineers and helping NRL’s summer interns navigate the joys and pitfalls of experiments. She also volunteered and helped form the curriculum for K-6 STEM experiences with the Children’s Science Center in Northern Virginia.  

“Becoming faculty at a top tier university means I can continue the impactful research I love, but with fewer restrictions on collaborations and direction, as well as better infrastructure and support personnel. On top of that, I get to educate the next generation of engineers,” Hite said. “Leaving an established, productive position at a national laboratory was not a light decision, and there are very few institutions I would ever consider. With MSE’s established record, its resources, and university and college support, UF was at the top of that very short list.”  

Now settling into her new role as an educator, Hite’s vision for her future at UF is bright, indeed.  

“My main goal is to raise our standing as a center for compound semiconductor research,” she said. “There is already a critical mass of faculty working in applications of (ultra)wide bandgap materials, characterization, processing, and heterogeneous integration of those materials. What I am bringing back is the ability to grow advanced structures of these materials in-house, so we vertically integrate across the entire college.”  

Hite’s journey, marked by unexpected obstacles and opportunities, highlights the value of lifelong learning and demonstrates how life’s twists and turns often guide us back to our roots. 

“As awful as it was at the time, if I hadn’t been laid off from Lucent, I would never have pursued a doctorate degree or gotten to where I am today. It would have been a completely different road,” Hite said. “My path has not been straight by any means, but everything in my adult life has seemed to circle back to UF, and I am extremely excited to be here.”

Welcome to UF, Dr. Hite!