Honoring the History of Women in Chemistry in Slice of MIT

March 21, 2013 - Philadelphia, PA

By Jay London

According to the Chemical Heritage Foundation, women have contributed to the field of chemistry since the age of alchemy—including four Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry and two American Chemical Society Medal winners—but only constitute 16 percent of tenured chemistry faculty at U.S. colleges.

A new documentary developed by the foundation aims to bring attention to this discrepancy. The Catalyst Series: Women in Chemistry honors nine women who have made significant contributions to the chemical sciences and features two MIT alumnae: Professor Paula Hammond ’84, PhD ’93 and Uma Chowdhry PhD ’76. Sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan (Class of 1895) Foundation, the program will premiere on the Philadelphia PBS affiliate WHYY beginning Wednesday, March 27.

Hammond, a David H. Koch Professor in Engineering, began her studies at MIT at a time when only 20 percent of the study body were female and even fewer students of color. Today, the Institute’s incoming student population is nearly half women and underrepresented minorities make up more than 25 percent. An MIT faculty member since 1995, Hammond’s research lab focuses on macromolecular design and synthesis and has been featured on Fox News and the TV program Chronicle. In 2002, Hammond co-founded the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology, which focuses on the safety of soldiers in battle.

From Women in Chemistry:

“I find that at MIT there is this huge spontaneity that happens, and it’s not really cultivated. It’s just that there’s such a sense of comfort and trust among people that you feel you can do anything here.”

With only eight dollars to her name, Chowdhry left her home in Mumbai, India, in the 1960s to study engineering science at CalTech and—through a grant from the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy)—materials science at MIT.

During her 33-year career at DuPont, where she is now chief science and technology officer emeritus, Chowdhry helped create superconductors—materials that have no resistance to electrical current at temperatures near absolute zero—and contributed to the development of electronic packaging, photovoltaics, batteries, and biofuel.

From Women in Chemistry:

“I like to think that I will be remembered for having worked on sustainable products and having globalized our research to reach the far ends of the world and provide better products to improve the material standard of living for people all over the world. And chemistry has been at the root of all that we do.”

Link to Slice of MIT.

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