Celebrating Women in STEM: Dr. Donna Nelson

The AMC series “Breaking Bad” was one of the most-watched cable shows of 2013, winning 16 Primetime Emmy Awards and two Golden Globes. Viewers were captivated by the tragic story of Walter White, a high school Chemistry teacher battling lung cancer. But working behind the scenes was another chemist, Dr. Donna Nelson, who served as the show’s science advisor.

Nelson was born in the small town of Eufaula, Oklahoma. Growing up with doctors in the family, she always felt a pull towards the sciences. Though she experienced a culture shock upon entering college, where she found herself the only Native American and one of very few women, she powered through and completed her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Oklahoma in 1974. Six years later, she completed her doctorate in chemistry at the University of Texas in Austin. After this she accepted a post-doctoral position at Purdue University, becoming the first female postdoc to work with Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dr. Herbert C. Brown.

In 1983, Nelson accepted a faculty position in chemistry at the University of Oklahoma, becoming the first woman and only Native American in a tenure-track position in the department. Feeling isolated as a young mother in a male-dominated field, Dr. Nelson turned to the legacy of Madame Marie Curie for inspiration.

Madame Curie was the first woman in France to earn a doctoral degree in a science field, and she went on to win Nobel Prizes in both physics and chemistry, all while raising a daughter and future Nobel Prize winner of her own. Inspired by Madame Curie’s dedication to both family and career, Nelson would bring her young son to the office to complete her work, proving that a work-life balance is possible for scientists.

She joined the Provost’s Office as a faculty administrative fellow in 1989 and became the Organic Division Chair in Chemistry in 2008. She’s won several awards as a faculty member, including the Oklahoma Outstanding Professor Award and the President’s Distinguished Faculty Mentor Award.

Dr. Nelson’s research in organic chemistry includes work with single-walled carbon nanotubes, which have applications in textiles, energy, aerospace and more. She also developed a method for applying nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a technique used to study molecule interactions.

Her research has earned her several positions with the American Chemical Society (ACS), including serving as president in 2016. She’s also been awarded many fellowships, including one with the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2005 and one with the ACS in 2010. She has nearly 200 publications and has served as a visiting professor at several institutions, including MIT, Rice University, and the University of Bulgaria.

On top of being an amazing chemist and mother, Nelson is also committed to changing the status quo in science. She conducted several years of research into the diversity of science departments, publishing her work as the Nelson Diversity Surveys in 2002, 2005, 2007 and 2012. These surveys looked at the diversity of tenure and tenure-track faculty at top science departments around the United Statesa and have been used by the government and others to advise diversity and inclusion policies.

For her contributions to closing the gender gap in the STEM fields, Nelson was awarded the Woman of Courage Award from the National Organization for Women in 2004, the National Science Foundation Leadership Award in 2006, and the ACS Award for Diversifying Chemistry in 2011.

Last year, she was named as one of “70 of the Most Inspirational Women Leaders Impacting the World” by business.org. Other winners include Oprah Winfrey, Angela Merkel and Beyoncé.

In an interview for the SACNAS Biographies Project, Nelson said, “It is my goal that future minority women scientists will not have to turn to history books to find a role model—instead they will find role models all around them.”

Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Email President Lauren Higgins at lahn7d@mail.umkc.edu for more information.

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