Women in Chemistry: Her Lab in Your Life in Chemistry International

'Her Lab in Your Life' Exhibit

November 1, 2004 - New York, NY

by Josh McIlvain

CHF’s newest traveling exhibit, Her Lab in Your Life: Women in Chemistry, focuses on the rich history of women chemists by highlighting some of their accomplishments from the Renaissance to the present. The exhibit’s purpose is to interest teenage women in the history of women chemists so that they will view a career in chemistry as a possibility.

Why was this audience chosen? The words of Stephanie Burns (president and chief operating officer of Dow Corning) in Chemical and Engineering News answer that question: “We know that young girls are interested in science during their early years in school, but by the time they get into high school, they lose interest. We have to put more emphasis into making science fun at the high-school level.” Thanks to the generous support of the Hach Scientific Foundation, Her Lab in Your Life was created to meet this challenge.

The central message of Her Lab in Your Life is that women’s important contributions to chemistry have helped create the world we live in today. To promote this message, the exhibit team concentrated on three related themes: women chemists have improved our understanding of the physical world, they have helped shape the material circumstances and popular culture of our everyday lives, and they have broken new ground in the chemical professions and served as role models for young women.

Choosing the Women and Their Story
Faced with the difficult task of choosing which important and interesting women chemists to include, the exhibit team eventually selected 68 and created research files for each one. Such a large number is clear proof that the achievements of women chemists are not isolated blips on a professional map. Many who did not make it into the panel of the traveling exhibit have been included on the exhibit’s companion Web site.

Some of the women highlighted in Her Lab in Your Life are still alive and active chemists. Also included are some famous women in the history of chemistry, such as Marie Curie, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, and Ellen Richards; their inclusion helps “ground” the rest of the experience, for theirs are among the few names visitors will likely recognize. The exhibit discusses many professions, representing the prominence of women chemists in several chemical fields and showing visitors the variety of careers to which chemistry can lead. Her Lab in Your Life also points out that women chemists from many backgrounds have made important contributions to chemistry.

Creating an exhibit on the history of women chemists that would engage a teenage audience presented an exciting challenge. The exhibit would also need to travel, be durable, and yet have enough presence to intrigue visitors to stop and spend time with it. How would the exhibit present the stories of Shannon Lucid, the NASA biochemist who set the American record (since broken) for most days in space; Susan Solomon, who helped determine the chemistry behind the ozone hole; Allene Rosalind Jeanes, who helped develop intravenous fluids and invent xanthan gum; and over 60 other chemists to a technologically sophisticated, media-savvy, and notoriously fickle audience used to high-speed Internet connections, iPods, factoids, and MTV?

In an interview I conducted with Melissa Sherman, global new business manager at DuPont, she explained how a college internship at 3M was her first exposure to “real world” applications of chemistry: “I became aware that chemistry was involved in the plastic on your computer keyboard, the fibers in your carpet, the fibers in your clothing, the cosmetics you wear on your face, the perfumes you use, the hair care products you use, as well as the plastic on automobiles or the rubber on your tires.” The ubiquity of chemistry and how it has shaped and continues to shape our everyday lives is what makes its history so interesting. The exhibit team uses this ubiquity as the setting for the stories of women chemists...

Link to CI

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