New Search

Margaret E.M. Tolbert

  • Born: November 24, 1943, Suffolk, Virginia

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0648
Interview Date: August 13, 2009
Location: National Science Foundation, Arlington, Virginia
Interviewer: Jeannette E. Brown
No. of pages: 83
Minutes: 151

  Abstract of Interview

Margaret E. M. Tolbert was born in Suffolk, Virginia at a time when rural Virginia was still very segregated. She and her siblings were raised by their grandmother within a large extended family. Growing up, Tolbert took cleaning jobs in her community to make money. In this way, she met Mr. and Mrs. Cook, who, as educated and relatively well-off African Americans, encouraged her to get a good education. Her high school had limited resources, but she found excellent mentors and graduated class valedictorian. She decided to attend Tuskegee University for her undergraduate degree, with the intention of entering medicine.

At Tuskegee, she was drawn to chemistry and research, a career path she had not been exposed to before. Though she was the only female student in her class, Tolbert found a community of supportive professors and students with an interest in her well-being. She went on to complete her master’s degree in chemistry at Wayne State University, but immediately returned to Tuskegee as a technician to be with her husband. She was interested in becoming a chemistry professor, so at the Cooks’ urging she applied to a Ph.D. program at Brown University, which was recruiting minority students. By this time, Tolbert’s first marriage had ended, and the Cooks cared for Tolbert’s son while she earned her degree. At Brown, she met her second husband, Henry Hudson Tolbert. After completing her doctorate, Tolbert returned to Tuskegee as a faculty member, but soon took guest research and management positions at the University of Texas, Florida A&M University, and Brown University. She also completed a postdoctorate in Brussels, Belgium, where her Congolese colleagues were fascinated by her African-American heritage.

While Tolbert had intended to stay in research, she found herself drawn to management positions. In 1979, she took the opportunity to become the first woman director of the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee University. In this position, she oversaw institutional development in the university’s research programs, but she also traveled to affiliated institutions as far away as Liberia and Libya. After almost a decade at the Carver Research Foundation, she went to Standard Oil of Ohio on sabbatical. From that point onward, she transitioned permanently to science management positions, working for BP America, the National Science Foundation, Argonne National Laboratory, and the New Brunswick Laboratory. In these positions, her responsibilities included overseeing development, funding, and diversity-based initiatives.

Tolbert is currently at the National Science Foundation, funding programs and developing policy focused on increasing diversity in science and technology. During the interview she spoke repeatedly about the importance of mentoring, and the opportunities networking provides to develop mentors, colleagues, and future opportunities. She concludes the interview by giving young women the advice to get a strong math/science background, and to make informed decisions. She also speaks to the unique ability of minority-serving institutions to provide an education while still cultivating the whole student.

  Education

1967 B.S., Chemistry, Tuskegee Institute
1968 M.S., Analytical Chemistry, Wayne State University
1974 Ph.D., Biochemistry, Brown University
1988 Completed, Accounting Principles Course, Dyke College

  Professional Experience

Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, Alabama

1969

Biomedical Research Technician

Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, Alabama

1969 - 1970

Instructor of Mathematics

Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, Alabama

1973 - 1976

Assistant Professor of Chemistry; Associate Professor of Chemistry; Professor of Chemistry

Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, Alabama

1980 - 1988

Professor of Chemistry

Opportunities Industrialization Center, Providence, Rhode Island

1971 - 1972

Instructor (Night Classes) of Mathematics and Science

Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island

1973

Instructor of Chemistry for Transitional Program

Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island

1978 - 1979

Associate Professor of Medical Science & MARC Faculty Fellow
in Research

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, California

1974

Research Associate in the Biomedical Institute

Southern Vocational College, Tuskegee, Alabama

1974

Instructor of Biology and Mathematics

University of Texas Medical School at Houston, Houston, Texas

1977

Visiting Scientist

Florida A&M University, Tallahassee, Florida

1977

Researcher

Florida A&M University, Tallahassee, Florida

1977 - 1979

Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences

Florida A&M University, Tallahassee, Florida

1977 - 1979

Associate Dean of the School of Pharmacy

International Institute of Cellular & Molecular Pathology, Brussels, Belgium

1977 - 1978

Guest Research Scientist & MARC Faculty Fellow

Carver Research Foundation of Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, Alabama

1979 - 1988

Director and Associate Provost for Research and Outreach, later named Associate Provost for Research and Development

University of Alabama System, Tuscaloosa/Huntsville/Birmingham, Alabama

1982 - 1983

Member of the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama System

Birmingham Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Birmingham, Alabama

1985 - 1987

Director of the Birmingham Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta; Chair of the Birmingham Branch

BP America, Inc, Research Center at Warrensville Heights, Ohio

1988 - 1990

Senior Budgets and Control Analyst

BP America, Inc, Research Center at Warrensville Heights, Ohio

1988 - 1990

Senior Planner

National Science Foundation, Washington, D.C.

1990 - 1993

Program Director; Special Assistant to the Vice Chair of the Committee on Education and Training of the Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering, and Technology

Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Chevy Chase, Maryland

1994

Program Officer for International Programs

Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, Illinois

1994 - 1996

Director of the Division of Educational Programs

The New Brunswick Laboratory/U.S. Department of Energy, Argonne, Illinois

1996 - 2002

Director

Office of Laboratory Operations and Environment, Safety and Health (SC-80) in the Office of Science/U.S. Department of Energy

2001

Acting Associate Director

National Science Foundation, Arlington, Virginia

2002 - present

Senior Advisor (Senior Executive Service)

National Science Foundation, Arlington, Virginia

2002 - present

Director, Science and Technology Centers Integrative Partnerships Program, FY 2005/FY 2006 Cohort

National Science Foundation, Arlington, Virginia

2002 - present

Executive Liaison, Committee on equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering

  Honors

1970 - 1971

Brown University Fellowship

1971 - 1973

Southern Fund Fellowship for Graduate Study at Brown University

1975

Outstanding Teacher, College of Arts and Sciences, Tuskegee Institute

1975

Plaque awarded by MBS Trainees for outstanding service to student
trainees at Tuskegee Institute

1976

Personalities of the South Award in recognition of achievements and
outstanding service to the community and state

1978

Plaque awarded by undergraduate and graduate students in the Career Outreach Awareness Program in appreciation of the outstanding work in student preparation

1978 - 1979

NIH/NIGMS-MARC Faculty Research Fellowship Award—Served as Guest Scientist, International Institute for Cellular and Molecular Pathology in Brussels, Belgium and Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island

1981

Alabama Democratic Conference Award in Science and Medicine

1981 - present

Presidential Associate, Tuskegee Institute

1982

Plaque for service to Tuskegee Public Schools

1983

Faculty Achievement Award, Tuskegee Institute

1983

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Award for Outstanding Service and
Contributions to Education

1983

Tuskegee Lions Club Award

1983

Certificate of Service for Outstanding Service in Lionism and the
Tuskegee Eye Bank

1984

Certificate of Service for Outstanding Service in Lionism and the
Tuskegee Eye Bank

1984

The Woman of the Year Award received from the Alpha Xi Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority

1985

Certificate of Service for Outstanding Service in Lionism and the
Tuskegee Eye Bank

1985

Academic Tenure awarded by Tuskegee University

1985

Certificate of Appreciation and Recognition awarded for Eminent
Volunteer Service and Sincere Dedication in the District Court of
Macon County-Juvenile and Outreach Service

1985

Plaque awarded by the East Tennessee Chapter of the National
Contractor Management Association

1987

Certificate of Distinguished Service to the Federal Reserve System and Excellent Contributions to the Federal Reserve Bank and to Economic Progress of the Sixth Federal Reserve District

1988

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellow

1996

Women’s History Month Award Certificate of Appreciation from
Women in Science Technology/Argonne National Laboratory

1996

Among the women honored with a luncheon and program at the White House during the “Women Making History” celebration

1997

The Chicago Operations Office/U.S. Department of Energy
Performance Award

1998

The Chicago Operations Office/U.S. Department of Energy
Performance Award

1998

Secretary of Energy Pride Award for Community Service

1999

The Chicago Operations Office/U.S. Department of Energy
Performance Award

1999

Chicago-Tuskegee Alumni Club President's Merit Award

2000

The Chicago Operations Office/U.S. Department of Energy
Performance Award

2000

Honoree in the Museum of Science and Industry's "Black Creativity
Exhibit: African-American Women in Science and Technology"

2000

Honored by the U.S. Department of Energy as it focused on advancing the status of women in the program titled "Women in Science"

2001

The Chicago Operations Office/U.S. Department of Energy
Performance Award

2001

Women of Color in Government and Defense Technology Award in
Managerial Leadership

2001

Appreciation Plaque from the Albuquerque Operations Office/U.S.
Department of Energy

2005

Performance Award from the National Science Foundation

2007

The Dr. George Washington Carver Distinguished Service Award from Tuskegee University

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Childhood 1

Born in rural Virginia. Segregation. Family background. Mother’s death. Living with grandmother. Household chores. Joining Girl Scouts. Earning money. “Momma” and “Daddy” Cook. Segregated schools. Limited scientific equipment. Strong mentors.

College Years 12

Tuskegee University. Scholarships. Lack of women in chemistry
department. Summer research internships. Strong student and faculty
mentoring. Decision to become a chemist.

Graduate Years 20

Master’s degree at Wayne State University. First marriage. Return to
Tuskegee. Technician job. Birth of son. Faculty position in math
department, but not chemistry. Brown University recruiter. Doctorate
degree at Brown University. Affirmative action. Second marriage.

Early Career 28

Chemistry faculty at Tuskegee. Visiting researcher in at Florida A&M
University and University of Texas. End of second marriage. Prioritizing her son’s education. Postdoctorate in Belgium. First woman director of Carver Research Foundation. Board of Trustees at University of Alabama and Federal Reserve Branch. Travel to Africa.

Later Career 44

Sabbatical at Standard Oil of Ohio. Highest-ranking  African-American woman at BP America. Importance of family ties. Temporary positions at NSF. Power of networking. Argonne National Laboratory. New Brunswick Laboratory. Return to NSF.

Reflection and Advice to Young Women 68

Importance of strong math and science background. Taking informed risks. Importance of networking and mentors. Societal need for minority-serving institutions.

Index 70

  About the Interviewer

Jeannette E. Brown

Jeannette E. Brown has a research MS degree from the University of Minnesota and a BS degree in the Field of Chemistry from Hunter College. She started her industrial career at CIBA 
Pharmaceutical Co. as a junior chemist, working there for eleven years, and she held the position of Research Chemist at Merck & Co. Inc. for twenty-five years. Brown is a former Faculty Associate in the department of Pre-College Programs at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, holding the title of New Jersey Statewide Systemic Initiative (NJSSI) Regional Director. She was appointed to the National Science Foundation Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women Minorities and Persons with Disabilities (CEOSE) and served on that committee for six years. She is the 2005 recipient of the American Chemical Society Dreyfus Award for mentoring minorities in science and she is currently working on a book about the history of African-American women chemists.

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@
chemheritage.org
.

Support CHF

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