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Cynthia J. Burrows

  • Born: September 23, 1953, St. Paul, Minnesota

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0671
Interview Dates: July 15, 2009 and July 16, 2009
Location: University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah
Interviewer: Hilary Domush
No. of pages: 82
Minutes: 255

  Abstract of Interview

Cynthia J. Burrows was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, one of two children.  Her father was an electrical engineer in the aerospace industry, and her mother was a housewife.  She liked school and was a good student; she had always known that she did not want to have one of the acceptable women’s jobs, viz. teaching, nursing, or secretarial work.  When she was in ninth grade the family moved to Boulder, Colorado, where later her high school chemistry class made beer that eventually exploded all over the classroom.  That was her first clue that she wanted to be a chemist.  She decided to attend the less expensive University of Colorado, but enjoyed moving five miles from home to live in a dorm.  Burrows spent her junior year at the University of Edinburgh taking courses from Evelyn A.V. Ebsworth.  In her senior year she entered Stanley Cristol’s lab, working on Stern-Volmer plots.  Next she spent four months as balloon technician on Ascension Island, returning to Cristol’s lab for the remainder of the year.

Burrows decided to enter Cornell University’s PhD program, where she became intrigued by Barry Carpenter’s class and by reaction mechanisms.  For her thesis she made five molecules, which, at times, she found a frustrating experience.  For a postdoc she went to the lab of Jean-Marie Lehn—who had given the Baker Lectures at Cornell—in Strasbourg, France.  She acquired two grants and so was able to stay for two years.  While in France she had the Chemical and Engineering News job section mailed to her, as there was no internet, to search for positions; she returned to the United States for interviews at several institutions.  She received an offer from State University of New York at Stony Brook, but it was for a Scott Anderson; he received her letter.  They were both hired, and eventually they married.  During their stay at Stony Brook they had triplets, compounding the difficulties of being the first tenure-track woman in the chemistry department.  Steven Rokita, her collaborator and friend, was especially helpful during that year.  Though Burrows slowed down some at this time—even enduring bed rest—she did not stop; instead, her lab came to her.  She was back in the lab shortly after the children’s birth, and when they were seven weeks old she ran a National Science Foundation conference. 

Needing a bigger house anyway, Burrows and Anderson decided to make a more permanent move.  They chose the University of Utah because Stony Brook’s new president had a different focus for the school; because of economics; because the two had parents in the West; because they both liked outdoor activities; and because there was a cultural center in Salt Lake City.  The only other woman in chemistry there had just left for medical school, so again Burrows was the only woman.  One of her early priorities was to set up a maternity leave policy to encourage other women to come to and remain in the department.  Nevertheless, she found the situation for women improving.

Burrows discusses at length women in chemistry and the changes she has seen during her career.  She talks about child care; the necessity of paternal involvement; the importance of “climate” for women; men’s careers; tenure and family planning; support and mentoring from her friends and colleagues in COACh and more informal groups.  She describes the couple’s pre-children sabbatical in Okazaki, Japan, talking about some of the differences between science there and in the United States and about her friend, Mitzuhiko Shionoya.  She talks about being mentored by John Osborn and mentoring her own students; and about how to interest more young women and men in science by teaching more science earlier.  She ends by stressing the importance of collaboration, especially hers with Steven Rokita.


1975 B.A., Chemistry, University of Colorado
1982 Ph.D., Chemistry, Cornell University

  Professional Experience

Université Louis Pasteur, Strasbourg, France

1981 - 1983

Postdoctorate, Chemistry, under Jean-Marie Lehn

State University of New York at Stony Brook

1983 - 1989

Assistant Professor of Chemistry

State University of New York at Stony Brook

1989 - 1992

Associate Professor of Chemistry

State University of New York at Stony Brook

1992 - 1995

Professor of Chemistry

University of Utah, Salt Lake City

1995 - 2007

Professor of Chemistry

University of Utah, Salt Lake City

1995 - present

Member, Huntsman Cancer Institute

University of Utah, Salt Lake City

2007 - present

Distinguished Professor of Chemistry



Regents' Scholarship, University of Colorado


President's Scholarship, University of Colorado


Du Pont Teaching Award, Cornell University

1981 - 1982

NSF - CNRS Exchange of Scientists Postdoctoral Fellowship

1982 - 1983

Bourse Chateaubriand French Embassy Fellowship

1988 - 1989

Lilly Teaching Fellow, SUNY at Stony Brook

1989 - 1990

Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Research Fellow, Okazaki


Visiting Professor, University of Minnesota


Professeur Invité, Université Louis Pasteur, Strasbourg

1993 - 1994

National Science Foundation Career Advancement Award

1993 - 1995

National Science Foundation Creativity Award


American Chemical Society Utah Award


Professeur Invité, Université Louis Pasteur, Strasbourg


Robert W. Parry Teaching Award, University of Utah


Bea Singer Award


Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science


Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Award, Univ. of Utah


Distinguished Professor, University of Utah


American Chemical Society Cope Scholar Award


Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences


Fellow, American Chemical Society

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Early Years 1

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Father electrical engineer, mother housewife.  Older brother.  Liked school; good student.  Outdoor activities with father.  Move to Boulder, Colorado.  Making beer in high-school chemistry class.  Dislike of women’s three traditional work options.

College and Graduate School 7

Attended University of Colorado.  Lived in dorm.  Junior year at University of Edinburgh.  Evelyn A.V. Ebsworth.  Senior year research with Stanley Cristol.  Stern-Volmer plots.  Few women in chemistry.  Four months at Ascension Island. Balloon technician for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Another year in Cristol’s lab.  Entered Cornell University’s PhD program.  Jerry Meinwald.  Liked logic of physical organic chemistry.  Barry Carpenter and reaction mechanisms.  Made five molecules for thesis.

Postdoctoral Years 23

Liked Baker Lectures at Cornell given by Jean-Marie Lehn.  Entered his lab in Strasbourg, France.  NSF-CNRS grant and Bourses Chateaubriand Scientifiques grant for two-year postdoc.  Combination of fields.

First Faculty Position 27

Offer letter mix-up; eventually marries man who got her letter.  Chose State University of New York at Stony Brook.  First tenure-track woman in chemistry department.  Teaching.  Giving birth to triplets.  Lab management while at home. Steven Rokita her collaborator and friend.  Logistics of child care.

Move to Utah 44

Reasons for leaving Stony Brook, choosing University of Utah.  Only woman again in chemistry departent.  Maternity leave policy.  Importance of “climate” for women.  Tenure and family planning.  Sabbatical in Japan in Eiichi Kimura’s lab.  Instrumentation in Okazaki for husband.  Lab  differences between United States and Japan.  Language difficulties.  Mitzuhiko Shionoya.  No women in tenured positions there.  Next sabbatical in Europe.

Further Thoughts about Women in Chemistry 59

Involvement in COACh.  Sharing tips for teaching, dealing with students and male faculty.  John Osborn her mentor in France.  Mentoring her students.  More science earlier in school.  Hormonal influences on success in chemistry.  Importance of collaborators, especially Steven Rokita.

Index 71

  About the Interviewers

Hilary Domush

Hilary Domush was a Program Associate in the Center for Oral History at CHF from 2007-2015. Previously, she earned a BS in chemistry from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 2003.  She then completed an MS in chemistry and an MA in history of science both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her graduate work in the history of science focused on early nineteenth-century chemistry in the city of Edinburgh, while her work in the chemistry was in a total synthesis laboratory.  At CHF, she worked on projects such as the Pew Biomedical Scholars, Women in Chemistry, Atmospheric Science, and Catalysis

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