Author Q&A: Jeanette Brown

  • February 22, 2012

A Q&A with the the author of African American Women Chemists.

“If you have traveled through an airport, it is likely you have been screened for nitrate explosives by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This detection test was invented by Dr. Betty Harris, an African American woman chemist. Jeannette Brown, an African American woman chemist herself, pays a due tribute to these women in her new book, African American Women Chemists (Oxford | January 2012) which profiles the lives and accomplishments of 25 chemists, from the earliest pioneers to the late 1960s, a time when an explosion of career opportunities opened up to African Americans due to the passage of the Civil Rights Acts. Each mini biography is a thorough account of the chemist’s passion for the field, what inspired her, and what she accomplished in her career. Brown rounds out this study with the inclusion of a narrative of her own life story and achievements.

Jeannette Elizabeth Brown is a former Faculty Associate at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. She is the 2004 Societe de Chimie Industrielle (American Section) Fellow of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and consistently lectures on African American women in chemistry.”

Q&A with Jeanette Brown, author of African American Women Chemists

As an African-American woman chemist, working in a male dominated field must be difficult, especially for the earlier African-American pioneers you write about. Were there particular challenges or hurdles you encountered when you first entered the science world and if so, how did they affect you?

I personally did not encounter any challenges with working in a male dominated field.  My undergraduate college, Hunter College in New York City, was all female so I had no problem there except one of the professors was reputed not to like women. But word got around so I did not take his course. The chairman of the department was reputed to be prejudice against African Americans, so I could not avoid his course so I had to take the grade he gave me, which was my lowest chemistry grade. In grad school, University of Minnesota, I had no problem even though I was the only African American woman. The professors were supportive as long as we studied and got good grades. My thesis advisor and the professor for whom I was a Teacher Assistant were both very supportive.

Some of the women in the book did have problems. Jennie Patrick details the problems she had in undergraduate and graduate school as does Lilia Abron. These were the two chemical engineers in the book. Gloria Long Anderson had problems getting grants in order to pursue her research. She was approved to receive a grant by going through the regular process but the money did not arrive until there was a special program for minorities. She deeply resented that.  Some of the other women in the book detailed other problems.

What inspired you to research African-American pioneer chemists? Was there one profile that interested you more than another?

I decided to research African American pioneer chemists because I met Dr. Marie Daly, the first African American woman to receive a PhD in Chemistry. I had heard about her story because her life was written in children’s books. I started my research before the internet had so much material about her. I met her at a scientific meeting and invited her to present a paper at a meeting of the American Chemical Society. She was the first African American woman chemist of stature that I had met. This was in the eighty’s. I wondered where the other women who had studied chemistry before Dr. Daly were. I started to do my research in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York City, as this was the only library that had any information at the time. I gave talks about the information that I found at scientific meetings and I was asked to put this into a book.

Since there were so few African-American women in chemistry, did you find it difficult to find research on the early pioneers?

When I did the research at the Schomburg I could not go the card catalog and look up Black /Negro chemists. I found books about Blacks in Science or outstanding women. I had to search through the books to find the women. It took a lot of probing through books in the early days of my research which started in the 80′s. Later when I received my two fellowships from The Chemical Heritage Foundation there was a lot of information about these women on the internet and some of the books were available in other libraries such as college and university libraries and even local libraries.

At any time during your research, did you get frustrated or find it hard to gather information?

Yes.  In fact I am still working on research. I have a list of women gleaned from Who’s Who in Black America and other sources.  I have a limited amount of information about those women.  In my research I also use genealogical research from, etc. This year the 1940 Census will be available so I can do even more research. I will put some of those women in my next book if I can find enough information. I need life information to put into the book from birth to death. So it is not just about their lives as chemists, but what and who inspired them to become chemists or study chemistry.

As a mentor to students, especially African-American women interested in a career in chemistry, what advice do you offer/suggest?

The last chapter in my book is dedicated to young women and men who may be interested in becoming chemists. I give a lot of information as to where they can find out about how to become a chemist. I am going to a career day Friday at a Middle School. It is at that level of education or even before that that kids should start thinking about studying science or becoming a chemist. Science should be taught K-12 in school. Currently, there are after-school science programs and summer science programs that students can attend. When they are in high school students who take chemistry can get a summer job working in a chemistry lab. This is the American Chemical Society’s Project SEED program for economically disadvantaged students.  But other students can check with a local college to see if they have similar programs for them.  Students interested in science need role models so my book is full of role models for them. My next book will be full of younger women who are chemists.

What is the most interesting aspect of your job? What do you enjoy most about being a chemist?

I loved going to work every day because I was doing basic research in the pharmaceutical industry. It was applied to a target disease but it was basic research because I had to “invent” the compound which had never been made before. This was tested by the biologists to see that it did what we wanted it to do. Then we would continue to make more compounds with similar structures until we found the best one which could go to the market. It was fun because every day was different.

What was the most interesting fact/detail you learned from your research about the woman pioneers before you in the field of chemistry?

The most interesting fact that I learned from my research was how hard it was for the pioneer women to succeed. Women who came from the south had gone to segregated schools, but they had teachers who had degrees, MS or PhD in their subjects and who encouraged and loved the students. Many of the pioneers went to Historically Black Colleges for their undergraduate degree where they had professors who encouraged and mentored them. Many of the faculty members had to work in the HBCU’s because they could not get positions in white colleges because of racism. They had the same problem as the K-12 teachers in the segregated south. The pioneer women’s careers proceeded slowly by working in their undergraduate college as teachers and then receiving an MS maybe from that school and finally going to a major university to get a PhD when they were accepted. All of this was before the Civil Rights Acts came into effect.

Do you see the field of chemistry and other related sciences an open field for future generations of African-American women?

Yes.  The field of chemistry is open to African American women and male chemists. There are a lot of younger African American women who are members of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). Women are studying chemistry and getting advanced degrees. The problem is that they may be getting entry level positions but they have difficulty in advancing up the industrial and or academic ladder. This was brought out in a recent symposium sponsored by the National Science Foundation about women of color in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). But it is still important that African American women become chemists because they tend to diversify the field of study. They take up research projects that may not be of interest to other chemists.

Niki Shepperd is a Public Affairs Specialist with 30 years of service in the Federal


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