Association Affairs

Awards honor early-career women in the chemical sciences

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Science  30 Oct 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6260, pp. 521-522
DOI: 10.1126/science.350.6260.521

Luisa Whittaker-Brooks wants to create a material that can be used to harvest ambient heat—from our bodies, for example—and turn it into electricity.

This material will need to be a good electrical conductor, but it mustn't be thermally conductive or the heat would escape from the system. So Whittaker-Brooks, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Utah, is working on integrating organic and inorganic materials—essentially, plastics and semiconductors—at the nanoscale. Because these two types of materials “don't like each other,” as she says, Whittaker-Brooks must manipulate the interfaces between the particles to encourage them to mingle.

This is just part of a master plan, whose ultimate goal is creating a device that can capture and store both thermal and solar energy, to continuously produce electricity. Such ambitious research can be tricky for early-career scientists, who too often find themselves in a Catch-22–like situation with regard to funding, especially when they want to do “high-risk, high-reward” research that could potentially lead to major breakthroughs.

“As an early-career scientist, this is very difficult at times, to get the funding for high-risk research,” said Alison Fout, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “We need preliminary results, we need data, we need publications, and then we need to get that funding. And as you can imagine, all that takes time, and time costs money.”

Fout and Whittaker-Brooks now have the means to tackle this problem, however, because they and two other early-career chemists have won the first AAAS Marion Milligan Mason Awards for Women in the Chemical Sciences. The group—which also includes Kristin Parent, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Michigan State University, and Katherine Mackey, an assistant professor of Earth system science at the University of California, Irvine—was recognized at a 15 October award ceremony at AAAS.

The awards, made possible by a $2.2 million bequest to AAAS, provide each chemist with $50,000 to ramp up their research projects while mentoring their own students.

A chemist and long-time AAAS member, the late Marion Tuttle Milligan Mason wanted to support the advancement of women in the chemical sciences. She also wanted to honor her family's commitment to higher education for women, as shown by her parents and her grandfather, who sent several daughters to college.

From left: Rush Holt, Shirley Malcom, Geri Richmond, Luisa Whittaker-Brooks, Kristin Parent, Katherine Mackey, Alison Fout, and AAAS Board member Laura Greene.


After graduating from Vassar College in 1949, Mason worked as a chemist at the American Cyanamid Company. When she learned that, compared to her colleagues who had recently earned doctoral degrees in chemistry, she was performing similar work for considerably less compensation, she felt motivated to continue her education, and in 1970, Mason earned her Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Rutgers University.

“I am creating this fund in honor of the memory of all the men and women of the Tuttle and Milligan families who believed in higher education for women and encouraged them in their pursuit of professional and business careers,” Mason wrote in her will.

The fund will provide grants every 2 years, for the next 20 years, to outstanding women researchers in the chemical sciences. “Marion Milligan Mason understood how she had benefited from being born into a family that understood the importance of and supported the science education of women. It is that legacy that we come here to recognize and to continue,” said Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources.

While the numbers of women entering STEM careers, including faculty positions in academia, has been growing, women are still, along with minorities and persons with disabilities, underrepresented in these fields. The disparities are particularly stark in chemistry and other physical sciences, where just 30% of the jobs in these fields are held by women, according to the National Science Foundation.

“These are serious issues, and until we change the climate at our institutions and develop policies that will help these women—not just women, but anyone who feels disadvantaged—our innovation will suffer and our nation will suffer,” said AAAS President Geri Richmond, who is also a U.S. science envoy and presidential chair and professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon.

At the ceremony, each of the winners thanked their mentors and supporters, and gave a brief description of their research. While Whittaker-Brooks is a materials chemist, Fout and the other winners are working on topics that blend chemistry and biology.

Fout builds synthetic and organic molecules and studies models of them in her lab. One of the questions she is investigating is how hemoglobin reduces nitrite, a process that affects blood pressure.

Parent uses cryoelectronic microscopy to determine the three-dimensional structure of large, complex viruses. This information sheds light on how viruses recognize and infect their hosts.

Mackey studies how marine phytoplankton respond to changing nutrient and light conditions. She is particularly interested in how climate change is affecting these microscopic organisms, as the oceans become more acidic and the vertical mixing of water layers becomes more sluggish.

“The life of an early-career scientist has a lot do to with writing grants and hoping you get funding so that you can get those students and support them,” said Mackey. “This grant will enable me to go out and get my students involved in fieldwork right away so that I can have the same effect on them that my mentors have had on my career.”

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