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Thinking about Ada Lovelace

The Center

Happy Ada Lovelace Day! Oh, do you not know who Ada Lovelace is…? Unfortunately you are not alone. Ada Lovelace (1815–1852) was the daughter of Lord Byron and author of the first computer programs. While it is sad to forget the heroines of 19th- and earlier-20th-century science, neither should we forget the heroines of science today. I spent Monday at the American Chemical Society meeting in San Francisco. My day began early with the Women in Industry breakfast. I met amazing women—and not just women in industry but women from all over the chemical world. I also met students who were networking and searching for their first jobs. Many of those young women—undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctorates—have lofty scientific dreams, and they should not fear they will be pushed to the margins as women. While I want to say that they will not be because this is the 21st century, one can never be certain.

The Women in Chemistry Oral History Project has been documenting the lives of women in chemistry who began their careers in the late 1970s or 1980s. These women are still practicing chemists working in industry, government, and academia, all of whom have experienced the subtle ways that being a woman in chemistry creates a difference. Though few of my interviewees experienced or wanted to discuss outright discrimination, many of them insinuated that throughout their career comments had been made by less than collegial colleagues.

While at the ACS meeting, I spent the evening at the Joint Subcommittee on Diversity reception. It was a wonderful event, with delicious food. But most important, it was a room full of hundreds of people who believe that the only limiting factor in being a chemist is one’s own drive and enthusiasm for the subject. The Women Chemists Committee was there, along with the Committee on Minority Affairs, the Younger Chemists Committee, and the Committee on Chemists with Disabilities, and representatives from the Committee on Technician Affairs, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and more were also present. Everyone in that room believed strongly that anyone with a desire to be a scientist could do it and that the larger scientific community should be happy for their contributions. The room last night was crowded. It should have been overflowing. Every person at the meeting should have been there to support diversity in chemistry and in science more generally.

Unfortunately, many in that room last night probably do not know Ada Lovelace’s name. And yet they persevere in the face of challenges both subtle and direct. Ada Lovelace could be a hero to many in that room last night. But many of the people there supporting diversity in science have already found heroes in themselves and in their peers. Now we just need the rest of the scientific world to see them that way too.

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Periodic Tabloid is an ongoing record of the activities of the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s staff and scholars, whose work tells the story of chemistry over the centuries up to modern times. Stay tuned for behind-the-scenes coverage of our events, exclusive supplemental materials to our publications, analysis of pressing contemporary scientific issues, and much more.