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Marion C. Thurnauer

  • Born: March 21, 1945, Chattanooga, Tennessee

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0674
Interview Dates: April 7, 2010 and April 8, 2012
Location: Boulder, Colorado
Interviewer: Hilary Domush
No. of pages: 83
Minutes: 244

  Abstract of Interview

Marion C. Thurnauer was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee and moved with her family to Minnesota when she was still young. Her father, a ceramic engineer, introduced her to rocks and minerals and encouraged her to follow her curiosity. Her maternal aunt, an astrophysicist, inspired her to look up at the stars and planets. Thurnauer credits her mother, who died when Marion was only fourteen, with supporting her interests in all things natural. Thurnauer attended the University of Chicago for her undergraduate and graduate degrees in chemistry, working with Gerhard Closs, her doctoral thesis advisor. She completed the final experiments for her thesis at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) because the required electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) spectrometer at the University of Chicago was severely damaged by a chemical explosion that occurred in the University’s chemistry building. Working at ANL, she believes, was probably a factor for her to secure a postdoctoral position in the ANL Chemistry Division (CHM) with James R. Norris and Joseph J. Katz, studying, primarily by EPR spectroscopy, photochemical energy conversion in natural photosynthesis. She was promoted to Assistant Chemist, a staff position, and was, for a few years, the only female staff scientist in CHM and rose to become the first woman CHM Director. Along the way she established “Science Careers in Search of Women,” a conference currently held annually for high school students. The second conference led to discussions between ANL leadership and a grass-roots group of female scientists. The outcome of these meetings was the formulation and launching of the ANL Women in Science and Technology (WIST) program. Thurnauer served a term (two years, 30% effort) as the WIST Program Initiator and for several years as a member of the WIST Steering Committee. When WIST was first established she believed that by now (more than twenty years later) WIST would have put itself out of business; but each generation has been faced with variations of the same issues of underrepresentation, promotion, bias, et cetera. According to Thurnauer, under sponsorship of the ANL Director’s office, WIST continues to hold outreach activities and works to recruit, retain, and promote women at ANL in an effort to ensure equity for all staff and to diversify and strengthen the scientific workforce.

As division director, Thurnauer once again was the only woman among her peers, i.e., division directors and ANL leadership. She had to choose frequently among competing goals and priorities and she had to maintain CHM’s shrinking core funding while working with scientists to secure additional funding. The latter was a new challenge, as historically CHM’s budget was based primarily on core funding; and going after ‘outside funding’ not only involved writing proposals but also finding the ‘DOE-Lab appropriate’ funding sources. She analogizes the situation to her brief experience with skydiving. During her tenure as director, CHM was involved with the ANL Materials Science Division (MSD) both at the new Advanced Photon Source and with efforts to secure funding for ANL’s Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM). Thurnauer felt that she was often defending chemistry (and CHM) with respect to materials science (and MSD). She worked to ensure that the initial proposals for the CNM included chemical sciences, in addition to materials sciences, in order to foster scientific excellence at the CNM. Nevertheless, in addition to all her administrative work, Thurnauer was able to continue to be involved with science mainly because her co-workers kept her informed and up to date on their results.

As she reminisces, Thurnauer discusses the general state of women in science, but particularly at ANL. She stresses the importance of mentoring, reinforcing, and building networks for women; she talks about having her husband in her division; she explains e-mentoring and recommends it; and she names and describes the work of some of the women who have served as her role models. At the end of the interview, Thurnauer discusses how she finds some satisfaction with the increase in the number of women in the sciences while at the same time warning about reality versus mere perception, also noting the visible differences in same gender versus mixed gender interactions. Thurnauer concludes with the reminder that there is “joy [in] doing science,” and that keeps women ‘going,’ in spite of issues that are extraneous to science.


1968 B.A., Chemistry, University of Chicago
1969 M.S., Chemistry, University of Chicago
1974 Ph.D., Chemistry, University of Chicago

  Professional Experience

Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, Illinois

1974 - 1977

Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, Illinois

1977 - 1981

Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, Illinois

1981 - 1991

Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, Illinois

1991 - 2004

Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, Illinois

1995 - 2003

Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, Illinois


Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, Illinois

2006 - present

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Early Years 1

Grows up in Tennessee and Minnesota, one of three children. Mother’s early death. Father’s and aunt’s influence. Emphasis on curiosity. Does well in school. Love for rocks and minerals. Anecdote about Thomas Cech.

First Job at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) 11

For several years, only female staff scientist in chemistry division. Men’s reactions to her. Establishes Career Conference, “Science Careers in Search of Women,” initially for college students and now held annually for high school students. Conference leads to formulation and launch, with ANL leadership, of Women in Science and Technology (WIST). WIST meant to continue outreach and to recruit, retain, and promote women’s careers. Surgery for breast cancer. Becomes WIST Program Initiator. Janet Osteryoung, Mildred Dresselhaus, Jean’ne Shreeve, Virginia Valian as role models. Diversity Award from Council for Chemical Research.

College, Graduate School, and Postdoctoral Years 30

University of Chicago for bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in chemistry. University’s rigorous reputation. Decision to pursue chemistry. Thesis research employed electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy. Few female chemistry students at Chicago, e.g. Jeannette Manello and Barbara Warren. Took postdoc with James Norris at ANL studying natural photosynthesis.

From Senior Chemist to Division Director 38

Continues to be involved with WIST. Evolution of understanding experiences of women in science: from outright discrimination against women to subtle biases. Return of same issues every generation. Becomes scientific Group Leader, then Division Director of Chemistry Division. Dealing with other Division Directors. Occasional dichotomy between duty to women and duty to ANL. Continuing lab work with colleagues such as Tijana Rajh, visiting chemist from Yugoslavia. Challenges maintaining division’s budget within DOE’s funding structures; analogy to skydiving. Using science to solve real-world problems, especially cleanup and storage of nuclear waste. Materials Sciences Division. Advanced Photon Source. Center for Nanoscale Materials.

Looking Back 55

Collaborations. Other women group leaders and division directors. Structural changes at ANL. Students of today versus students of twenty years ago. Importance of mentoring, building networks. Example of Lisa Utschig, first named postdoc award, Fermi Scholar. Having husband in her division. E-mentoring. Increase in number of women in sciences. Differences between same gender and mixed gender interactions.

Index 73

  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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