C&EN Talks with Susan Marie Frontczak

Frontczak as Curie, courtesy of Susan Frontczak

May 23, 2011 - Washington, DC

From Chemical & Engineering News, May 23, 2011, p. 37

By Carmen Drahl

Susan Marie Frontczak took the stage on a rainy Philadelphia Wednesday, but no one noticed. The audience at the Chemical Heritage Foundation didn’t see the girl who grew up outside Detroit, who studied hard and ended up designing integrated circuits for Hewlett-Packard. No, they were too swept up in the persona Frontczak had assumed—that of famed chemist Madame Marie Skłodowska Curie.

In a buttoned-to-the-hilt black dress, wisps of gray hair peeking out from a pulled-back bun, Curie tells her story nervously at first, her fingers fidgeting. But soon enough she warms to the audience, coming alive as she describes her pioneering research on radioactivity. “It is this work which has brought me the most meaning and pleasure,” Curie says in halting, Polish-accented English.

Frontczak figures the public would learn more about chemistry, and perhaps leave behind negative stereotypes, if chemists got out of their labs and talked to lay audiences a little more often. “Why do people get so excited about chemistry when Marie Curie tells them her story?” she asks. “It’s because Marie Curie was passionate about her work.”

Curie herself overcame profound shyness to enter the public sphere, Frontczak explains. She was loath to leave the lab—onstage as Curie, Frontczak snaps, “I tell the reporters I am interested in things, not people.” But raising funds for the Red Cross’s mobile X-ray units during World War I proved powerful motivation for Curie to speak to the public, the media, and government officials, Frontczak says.

“When she gets talking about what she discovered, how many hours would disappear as she figured this stuff out, her love of the subject infects the audience,” Frontczak says. Chemists should take a page from that passion and tell more nonscientists about what they do and why they’re excited to go to work in the morning, claims Frontczak. “That will have a more positive effect on the world’s impression of chemistry than any ads or propaganda.”

“Let them see the enjoyment,” Frontczak advises. “Let them see the love.”

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