New Search

Donna J. Nelson

Donna J. Nelson

Courtesy of Donna J. Nelson

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0482
Interview Dates: July 21, 2008 and July 22, 2008
Location: University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma
Interviewers: Hilary Domush and Leah Webb-Halpern
No. of pages: 77
Minutes: 227

  Abstract of Interview

Donna J. Nelson's oral history begins with a discussion of her childhood in Eufaula, Oklahoma—a small town with Native American influences that grew into a much larger town throughout her youth. Heavily influenced by her parents, Nelson was a motivated student who wanted to work with and help people as her step-father, the town's only physician, had done. Nelson entered the University of Oklahoma with the intentions of pursuing medicine and possibly majoring in math. After joining the chemistry department, Nelson was immediately confronted with the contrasts between female and male students; she excelled in the coursework but needed to work harder in the laboratory to maintain parity with the male students (the male students, Nelson believed, were used to the manual dexterity of lab work from experienceworking on cars). After graduating, Nelson spent a brief time working on MINDO/3 calculations at Auburn University for Philip B. Shevlin and S. David Worley. There Nelsondecided that, for graduate school, she only wanted to work with Michael J. S. Dewar at the University of Texas at Austin who developed the methodology. Near the end of her time in Austin, Dewar helped Nelson secure a post-doctoral position with Herbert C. Brown at Purdue University, where she became Brown's first female post-doctorate. Nelson described her work and other experiences under Brown, which included giving birth to her son Christopher and returning to lab the following week. After detailing her early experiences as the first tenure-track female faculty member of the University of Oklahoma chemistry department, Nelson moved on to explaining the importance of listening to women's experiences in order to help develop true parity in the scientific community. Throughout the interview Nelson referenced what she learned as a member of a Women in Science group at Purdue, and also what she learned by seeking advice from colleagues, that is, that "the best path to follow is a well-educated decision; no one can tell you what to do or what is best for you, but their experiences can help you to shape your own decisions." Nelson continued the interview by explaining how a 2000 C&E News article, prompted her to conduct a survey of women and minorities in the top chemistry departments. She described the initial survey work that led to further surveys of other disciplines whose departments were ranked by the National Science Foundation. Her survey work and research have been quoted in such varied places as Ms. Magazine and Harvard University's chemistry department Web site. Since the survey work, much of Nelson's time has been spent researching issues surrounding women and minorities in chemistry and the sciences and working with Marye Anne Fox at University of California, San Diego, as well as with SACNAS.


1974 B.S., Chemistry, University of Oklahoma
1980 Ph.D., Chemistry (with Michael J. S. Dewar), University of Texas at Austin

  Professional Experience

Purdue University

1980 - 1983 Post-Doctorate, Chemistry, with Herbert C. Brown

University of Oklahoma

1983 - 1990 Assistant Professor, Chemistry

University of Oklahoma

1989 - 1990 Provost's Faculty Administrative Fellow

University of Oklahoma

1990 - Present Associate Professor, Chemistry

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

2003 - 2004 Visiting Professor

University of Oklahoma

2005 - 2007 Assistant to ACS President Ann Nalley

University of Oklahoma

2008 Organic Division Chair, Chemistry

University of Oklahoma

2008 Development Officer, Chemistry


1977 - 1979 Robert A. Welch Predoctoral Fellow
1980 Robert A. Welch Postdoctoral Fellow
1984 University of Oklahoma Junior Faculty Research Fellow
1985 ACS Petroleum Research Foundation Type G Award
1985 Research Corporation Cottrell Scholar Award
1985 - 1986 Oklahoma University Associates' Distinguished Lecturer
1994 The Iotan Member Spotlight
1995 Oklahoma University Sooners Football Team Honorary Faculty Coach
1999 Alpha Phi Omega Leader of the 20th Century
2001 Capitol Hill Briefing
2003 Woman of Achievement, US Black Engineer and Information Technology Magazine
2003 - 2004 Ford Foundation Fellowship
2003 Guggenheim Award
2004 Capitol Hill Briefing
2004 Capitol Hill Press Conference Speaker
2004 Woman of Courage Award, National Organization for Women
2004 SACNAS National Conference Keynote Speaker
2004 - 2005 Outstanding Professor, Oklahoma Educator's Leadership Academy
2004 - 2006 50 Making a Difference, Oklahoma City's Journal Record
2005 Minority Health Professions Foundation Hall of Fame Inductee
2005 Twentieth Anniversary MIT Women's Studies Program Opening Speaker
2005 Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Sciences
2006 21 Leaders for the 21st Century, Women's eNews
2006 Research Featured on ACS Organic Division Calendar
2006 SACNAS Distinguished Scientist of the Year
2006 - 2009 NSF ADVANCE Leadership Award
2007 Fulbright Scholar
2008 Dow Chemical Company Advisory Board

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Childhood 1

Growing up in Eufaula, Oklahoma. Native American influences. Stepfather was the town's only physician. Importance of education and becoming someone with that education. Interests in math and science.

Undergraduate Education 5

University of Oklahoma. Contrasting laboratory skills of men who worked on cars and herself. Influences of Norman Fogel and Ron Kantowski.

Graduate Education 10

Working at Auburn University with S. David Worley and Philip B. Shevlin. University of Texas, Austin. Physical chemistry research with Michael J. S. Dewar. MINDO/3. Dewar's assistance looking for postdoctoral positions.

Postdoctoral Work 16

Purdue University and Herbert C. Brown. Husband finding a job. Transition from mostly computational work to experimental. First female post-doctorate in the group. Giving birth and coming back to work the next week. Balancing day-care and working half-days, then full-time. Interactions with other females in the department. Women in Science and Engineering group. Women Chemists Committee lunches at American Chemical Society meetings. Listening to other women's experiences.

Principal Investigator 27

University of Oklahoma. First tenure-track female in chemistry department. Balancing work and raising a one-year-old son. Christopher spending time in the laboratory. Working with students who are mothers. Same department chair for 25 years. Dealing with discrimination. Role models, mentors, and resource distribution.

National Level Surveys 37

2000 C&E News article about women in chemistry. Thinking about the distribution of women and minorities through chemistry departments in academia. Mailed surveys to department chairs regarding the numbers of women and minority faculty and their professorial rank. Recognition of discrimination over time. Creation of a community around the minority chemistry faculty. Published in AWIS Magazine—not a peer-reviewed journal. ACS checks and verifies the data. Survey similar data for the top fifty departments ranked by NSF in other disciplines. Intense feedback. Capitol Hill briefings and Congressman Vernon J. Ehlers.

Diversity Research and Experiences 49

Ford Fellowship. Chancellor Diversity Scholar at UCSD. Marye Anne Fox. SACNAS. Surveys, discussion, awareness, and change. Historical mentors. Marie Curie. Ann Nalley.

Principal Investigator 56

Single wall carbon nanotubes. Ann Nalley's ACS Presidential Event. Richard E. Smalley memorial symposium.

Diversity Research and Experiences 58

Title IX and science. Public perception of scientists. Image of Marie Curie. Television show Breaking Bad.

Index 65

  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

Leah Webb-Halpern

Leah Webb-Halpern graduated from Smith College with a major in history and a minor in Latin American studies. Prior to joining the Chemical Heritage Foundation as an oral history program assistant, she was a research assistant at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Leah has moved on from the CHF and is currently a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Hear It Firsthand

The Center for Oral History captures and preserves the stories of notable figures in chemistry and related fields, with over 425 oral histories that deal with various aspects of science, of scientists, and of scientific practices. For more information please visit CHF’s Oral History Program or e-mail oralhistory@

Annual Report

Annual Report
Take a look back at a year of preservation, research, and outreach in CHF’s annual report to supporters.

Support CHF

Help us preserve and share the history of chemistry and related sciences. Make a tax-deductible tax-deductible gift online.