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Women in Chemistry 2011: A Recap

Students studied objects from CHF's collections during a museum tour that focused on women's contributions in chemistry. Photo by Conrad Erb.

A 2006 UNESCO report estimates that only 27% of scientists worldwide are women. While women in chemistry fare slightly better than some in other disciplines, their rate of retention within the industry still causes concern. As part of its ongoing commitment to women in science, last week CHF held a two-day celebration of female chemists. Women in Chemistry 2011: Celebrating the Past, Creating the Future was held in conjunction with both the International Year of Chemistry and the Philadelphia Science Festival, and attracted students from the high school level to the post-doctoral.

The program sought to make students aware of the breadth of opportunity open to a person who has pursued advanced study in chemistry and related sciences, as well as provide female role models that have pursued careers in chemistry and related fields. At a panel discussion on the first day, students from Girard College (an all-girl high school) and Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls spoke with Karen Graziano (Dow Chemical Company), Moushumi Paul (USDA), and Kathleen Michael (Thomson Reuters). They asked about the women’s initial interests in science, the most challenging courses they had taken, and the difference between professional chemists with bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees. For many of the students, it was encouraging to learn that women who choose a career in chemistry often started out just like them.

Kim Ann Mink (Dow Chemical Company), Eileen Jaffe (Fox Chase Cancer Center), and Terry Newirth (Haverford College) held the second day of discussions, designed for undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral students who have already chosen a scientific pathway. The panel title itself was a common question among students: “Will My Whole Career Be Based on One Decision, or: How do I Pick a Research Area?” One of the most important points to come across during the Q&A was that a single choice does not shape a career; rather, all of the panelists talked about the series of decisions, people, and places that led them where they are today.

One common thread that ran throughout the event was the impact of chemistry on modern life, and the role women have played within it. Both days of discussions featured a museum tour that highlighted women’s contributions to chemistry, as well as an evening performance of “Manya: A Visit with Marie Curie,” Susan Marie Frontczak's living history of the Nobel Laureate. Frontczak spent an hour in character as Curie, tracing her life from childhood in Poland through her seminal scientific discoveries. She provided a Q&A session – in character – as well, an unexpected parallel to the days’ earlier panels.

Overall, Women in Chemistry 2011 was an enormous success. The response from participants serves as an important reminder that public engagement with science, one of CHF’s driving forces, must also include a commitment to encouraging and supporting the next generation of students – many of whom happen to be women.

Posted In: Education | History | Policy

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