Beyond the Legend of Marie Curie: Role Models and Mentors for Women in Chemistry

Beyond the Legend of Marie Curie: Role Models and Mentors for Women in Chemistry


Panelists discussing career opportunities and challenges at the event “Career Pathways for Women in Chemistry.”

Cynthia Burrows was a faculty member in the early 1990s and, like Donna Nelson, she was a lone woman within her department. But in a sharp contrast, Burrows, now at the University of Utah, waited to have children until she was a tenured full professor at Stony Brook University. Unlike Nelson, whose pregnancy was easy, Burrows was pregnant with triplets!

The result of that was not only did the Chair—the Chair at the time was David [M.] Hanson, and I really have to credit him with—after a few seconds of shock when I announced to him that I was three or four months pregnant with triplets, after his initial shock which was really only momentary, and he said, “Well, what can we do to make sure that your research program doesn’t suffer?” This was around about February. My due date was early September, so we assumed that the kids would be born earlier than that. He said, “Clearly you shouldn’t teach in the fall semester, so we need to give you the fall semester off, and you know just tell us what can we do? How can we help this situation? It’s very important your research program continue. We want to support that, but taking a semester off from teaching doesn’t impact your career the way taking a semester off from research would.” Then I also had phone calls from the Dean saying, “What can we do? Is your Chair helping you…doing enough to help you out?” So, that was great. I think I did find a very supportive environment there (Burrows Oral History, 42).

Despite the absence of a formal family leave plan, the department created ways to accommodate her situation, allowing her to work from home before that was an easy or convenient norm as it is today with email and cell-phones. While Burrows spoke of the support offered to her by her department and her chair, she said “there were probably quite a few things said that I never heard” regarding how her research and career would suffer because of the decision (Burrows, p. 43). Although Burrows knew of these comments, she chose in her oral history to spend more time discussing how helpful and supportive her departmental colleagues were. Regardless of the naysayers, both she and Nelson found success in the choices they made. According to the 2007 NAS report Beyond Bias and Barriers, women in STEM fields observe that colleagues and peers deem childcare and family responsibility of lesser importance than laboratory research and traditional career objectives (Beyond Bias and Barriers, pp. 175-176). Burrows suspected comments and whispers about her growing family meaning the end of her research career; whereas, the Nelson in the early 1980s heard comments directly about being a bad mother.

Prioritizing Everything

Like Donna Nelson and Cynthia Burrows, Amy H. Newman of The National Institute on Drug Abuse was confident in the choices she made regarding her family and her career. Having had three young children at the beginning of her tenure at NIH (she was pregnant when she interviewed for the position), she was keenly aware that some sacrifices would be made in order to find success in both her research and family lives. Due to her work schedule, Newman explained:

I probably missed Kelly’s first step, and I saw her second step and that was just fine. But I have other friends who really would have just died if they’d missed the first step with their child. So, everybody has a slightly different view of that (Newman Oral History, p. 64).

However, she didn’t miss all of her children’s steps! Newman’s reaction, instead, highlights that women in chemistry require not just one super woman as inspiration and role model, but many different women. Various role models and mentors can fill different needs and present women with options to forge their own successful paths regarding different aspects of their work, research, family, and hobby-filled lives. Work is ever-present; but so is the rest of one’s life, whether it is family, children, pets, friends, or hobbies. All who undertake a career in chemistry and the related sciences quickly learn that the job can be all consuming, and that efforts to at do it all are overwhelming. As Cynthia Burrows explained:

I think everyone acknowledges that at a Research One university, that would be a rare individual who could work only Monday through Friday, forty hours a week, and get tenure. It’s usually much more involved than that. So, it’s up to the individual to decide what is the point at which they have the time in their lives to have the very full—not full-time, but full job—of family and the very full job of getting the career off the ground (Burrows Oral History, 55).

Experiments do not necessarily run from 9p.m. to 5p.m., grant deadlines do not wait, and industrial jobs can require not just international travel but sometimes international relocation. Regardless of when in their career these women chose to have their children, each still needed to spend time advancing their chemistry careers. Many of the women spoke in their oral histories about taking their children to conferences, seminars, or even “parking her stroller right at my poster, and she slept through the whole thing” (Newman Oral History, 33, and reiterated in the recent American Association of University Women report Why So Few: Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). The National Academy of Sciences report Beyond Bias and Barriers explains the difficulties of only having 24 hours in the day for women trying to do it all. Women, often more heavily committed outside of the laboratory than many male peers because of family responsibility, are challenged when “laboratories assume that scientists or engineers are available when needed for research, and departments assume that researchers are free to travel to present results and deal with collaborators. Fellowship and hiring committees assume that people are free to relocate to maximize career opportunities” (AAUW 88 Beyond Bias and Barriers, p. 170). Donna Nelson concisely argued in her oral history that, “Time…anything that consumes your time is depleting that resource” (Nelson Oral History, p. 36). Women constantly find themselves short of time and resources, and are looking for more than simply inspiration.The women interviewed by the Chemical Heritage Foundation have prioritized different things at different times in their careers. Some chose to establish their career first, some chose to begin their family and their career concurrently. Catherine T. Hunt, who spent the majority of her career with Rohm and Haas, explained:

You’re like an oven or a stove, and you have four burners: one of them is work, one of them is family, one of them is friends, and one of them is health—your health. [A friend said,] that you can’t really keep all four of those balls in the air at the same time, so you need to be consciously thinking about how you’re balancing them. Well, I guess, I should say it differently. You can keep them all in the air, but you have to consciously think about balancing them (Hunt Oral History, p. 50).

Unfortunately there are always sacrifices to be made. No woman can prioritize all things at all times, and sometimes things are missed—perhaps first steps, perhaps a conference. However with respect to women in chemistry and the issue of balancing career and family, there are more women today successfully choosing to do both. In 1993 only 2.9% of female full professors in all the physical sciences had children, whereas in 2006 that percentage had more than tripled. Looking at female professors of all ranks on the tenure track in the physical sciences and engineering in 1993, the percentage with children was just over 6% and in 2006 it was close to 16% (Burrelli, 2008). Today, as young women in chemistry and other sciences complete their undergraduate and graduate education, they are exposed to women who have figured out how to balance career and family—or at the very least are actively attempting to do so. Young women are exposed to outstanding women who have developed a multitude of skills to balance their career and their life beyond their career, not just a duality but often a plurality of hobbies, interests, and family. Their contemporary experiences differ sharply from the women interviewed by CHF, who had so few peers, colleagues, and mentors to look to that they were forced to look at historical figures like Marie Curie.

It is not that Marie Curie is unimportant; she is. And we do well to continue to honor her, remember her, and understand her. However, most women (and men) only know Marie Curie the legend, the super woman, the super scientist. Marie Curie lived a hundred years ago and the circumstances and situations women contend with in the scientific workplace today are different than what she faced. Different approaches and different techniques for these situations may not be comparable to anything she dealt with in early twentieth century Paris. In an era before smartphones and Skype, people had to be physically present to participate in meetings, conferences, and family functions. Different—perhaps non-traditional—moments with children and family become cherished even if those first baby steps were missed. As wonderful as the legend of Marie Curie remains, there exist so many women in chemistry and women in science who function as exemplars of success. The women interviewed by the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s oral history program, the women featured in the Catalyst Series videos, and countless other women have found routes to successful careers and successful lives in and beyond chemistry. These living women act as mentors and inspiration for the twenty-first century.


1. American Association of University Women. “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” Research report, 2010.     

2. Burrelli, Joan. “Thirty-three Years of Women in Science and Engineering Faculty Positions.” National Science Foundation InfoBrief, July 2008.

3. Buchanan, Michelle V. Interview by Hilary Domush at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 9 and 10 March 2010. Chemical Heritage Foundation Oral History.

4. Burrows, Cynthia. Interview by Hilary Domush at University of Utah, 15 and 16 July 2009. Chemical Heritage Foundation Oral History.

5. Butts, Susan B. Interview by Hilary Domush at Washington D.C., 9 and 10 November 2010. Chemical Heritage Foundation Oral History.

6. Chapman, Sally. Interview by Hilary Domush at Barnard College, New York, New York, 5 and 6 January 2009. Chemical Heritage Foundation Oral History.

7. Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling And Potential Of Women In Academic Science And Engineering." Report from the National Academy of Sciences, 2006.

8. Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine; Committee on National Statistics; National Research Council. Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty. Washington DC: National Academy of Sciences, 2010.

9. Curie, Eve. Madame Curie: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1938.

10. Giordan, Judith C. Interview by Hilary Domush at Pelham, Massachusetts, 29 and 30 July 2010. Chemical Heritage Foundation Oral History.

11. Good, Mary L. Interview by James G. Traynham at Little Rock, Arkansas, 2 June 1998. Chemical Heritage Foundation Oral History.

12. Goulden, Marc, Karie Frasch, and Mary Ann Mason. “Staying Competitive: Patching America’s Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences.” Center for American Progress and Berkeley Center on Health Economic & Family Security, 2009

13. Hunt, Catherine T. Interview by Hilary Domush at Rohm and Haas Corporate Headquarters and The Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 26 March and 28 August 2009. Chemical Heritage Foundation Oral History.

14. Nelson, Donna J. Interview by Hilary Domush at University of Oklahoma, 21 and 22 July 2008. Chemical Heritage Foundation Oral History.

15. Newman, Amy H. Interview by Hilary Domush at National Institutes of Health, Baltimore, Maryland, 25 and 26 August 2009. Chemical Heritage Foundation Oral History.

16. Raber, Linda R. “Women now 16% of Chemistry Faculty.” Chemical & Engineering News, December 22, 2008.

17. Raber, Linda R. “Women now 17% of Chemistry Faculty,” Chemical & Engineering News, March 1, 2010.

18. Rawls, Rebecca L. and Jeffery L. Fox. “Women in Academic Chemistry Find Rise to Full Status Difficult.” Chemical & Engineering News, September, 1978.

19. Reid, Robert. Marie Curie. New York: New American Library, 1974.

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