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Thinking Outside the Atom

Marie Curie's thesis.

A copy of Marie Curie's thesis. Image courtesy of the Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library, Chemical Heritage Foundation.

This year we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize in chemistry. But a recent flurry of articles about the glut of Ph.D. chemists has me thinking about Curie’s Ph.D. thesis.

Curie’s thesis focused on the recently discovered Becquerel rays, which were discovered shortly after Roentgen’s X-rays. Surprisingly finding professors who would listen to a hard-working woman—and a Polish woman at that!—Curie was able to join the cutting edge world of researchers who were exploring inside the atom.

What does Curie's story have to do with today’s chemists? In the past century chemistry has specialized in ways unimaginable in her time, as new fields and disciplines have popped up everywhere like nanotechnology, materials science, and biochemistry, just to name a few examples. In Marie’s time interdisciplinary meant being able to converse with both chemists and physicists, but today interdisciplinary can mean combining almost any subfields.  

However, interdisciplinary chemistry and interdisciplinary thought is not necessarily taught during the graduate school experience leading up to a Ph.D. Of the many newly -minted Ph.D. chemists every year, how many are trained in a manner that encourages interdisciplinary thinking, cutting-edge ideas for innovation, and exceptional research skills? It is possible that the vast majority of Ph.D.s are just average. But chemistry requires something new. It requires something and someone like Curie, who appealed at an interdisciplinary level and could think both outside and inside the atom.

Posted In: History | Policy

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