Issue Date: October 8, 2007
Rising Stars Reunite
A lot can happen in five years. In 2002, C&EN produced a series of articles on 12 "rising stars" to celebrate the Women Chemists Committee's (WCC) 75th anniversary. These women chemists were just starting their careers and had futures full of promise.
True to our predictions, they've been successful. Many of these women have now received tenure and are full professors. Several have moved to different universities since the original series appeared. A few of them have moved from industry to academia, and one woman found her calling by completely changing her research direction. These women have experienced personal changes as well, with several of them becoming mothers.
Six of the women reunited this past August at the ACS fall national meeting in Boston to present their research in celebration of WCC's 80th anniversary. C&EN checked in with all 12 women to find out how their lives and their careers have progressed.
For Valerie Sheares Ashby, 2002 proved to be a major turning point in her life (C&EN, Aug. 26, 2002, page 34). The Iowa State University assistant professor received tenure, was promoted to associate professor, and got married—all in the month of August. By January 2003, Ashby was asking herself, "Now what do I do?"
While preparing her tenure package, Ashby realized that she was no longer excited about her research projects in synthetic polymer chemistry. "I had to write at the end of my promotion packet what my future research was going to be," she says. "In that process of writing about more of the same, I knew I couldn't do more of the same."
She had been toying with the idea of moving into biomaterials, but it wasn't until she completed a brief sabbatical in 2003 studying biological material design in the lab of Robert S. Langer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology that the idea started to gel. "The only way we could really change areas was to let everything that was old go," she says.
So Ashby took a position as an associate professor at her alma mater, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She and her research group, which she brought from Iowa State, took their expertise in synthetic polymer chemistry and began applying it to biological materials. Her timing couldn't have been better, because the field of biomaterials was beginning to boom and funding was plentiful.
Ashby says she is doing things she never imagined doing five years ago. "We're having a lab on campus implant some of our materials in rats," she says. "Who would have thought that we would be dealing with rats?"
She says the change has reinvigorated her career, and it has affected her students as well. "When we're doing things that are more relevant, more up-to-date, they are more excited about their research," she says.
Ashby was named Gordon & Bowman Gray Distinguished Term Professor of Chemistry this past spring. She also directs the National Science Foundation's Alliances for Graduate Education in the Professoriate Program at UNC. The program aims to increase the number of minority students pursuing graduate degrees in science, math, and engineering who are interested in becoming professors. In fact, it was through a related program during the summer of 1988 that Ashby, then an undergraduate at UNC, began thinking about pursuing a Ph.D.
Her personal life is also flourishing. Ashby continues to teach Sunday school, just as she did in Iowa, and she attends church every Sunday with her husband, who is a minister. With all the changes in her life, she says, one thing will never change: her faith in God. "That part of my life is constant."
Zhenan Bao believes moving from industry to academia was the right decision for her. In 2002, Bao was a distinguished member of the technical staff at Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs, in Murray Hill, N.J. (C&EN, March 25, 2002, page 28). In March 2004, Bao became an associate professor of chemical engineering and a Finmeccanica Faculty Scholar at Stanford University. She says the transition to academia has given her the freedom to pursue a more detailed understanding of certain scientific topics.
Currently, Bao is working on organic thin-film transistors for flexible electronic circuits. Her research group of more than 20 graduate students, postdocs, and undergrads is working on related topics, including organic-based solar cells, carbon-nanotube electronics, and biosensors.
Bao and her husband have two children, ages one and five. She says she has a good work/life balance at Stanford. The university recently started several new programs, including offering a subsidy to faculty members for child care and paying travel expenses for a spouse or nanny to accompany the faculty member to scientific conferences.
Bao balances her life by setting priorities. Although her workhours are not as regular as they were at Bell Labs, she has managed to work around her schedule and find time for her family. She also makes time her herself. She frequently bikes or walks to work, and during her down time, she calls her parents back home in China.
She says she is enjoying the moment and stops short at predicting where she will be in five years. "Anything can happen in five years," she says.
In 2002, Angela Belcher had just moved from the University of Texas, Austin, where she was an assistant professor, to MIT, where she was starting as an associate professor (C&EN, Nov. 25, 2002, page 24).
At the time, she was feeling homesick for Texas and was in search of a fresh tortilla in Boston. After the C&EN article appeared and exposed her longings, she says, many readers e-mailed her with suggestions for places to try. In the end, Belcher found the best tortilla right under her nose. "My husband has learned to make very good homemade tortillas," she says.
Today, Belcher is Germeshausen Professor of Materials Science & Engineering & Biological Engineering at MIT. Her research focuses on using biological materials for energy storage and environmentally friendly processing. She is also working on materials for electrochromic devices for displays, cancer diagnostics, fuel cells, and catalysis.
She says the past five years have been critical in establishing herself as a professor. "I've passed a lot of the major hurdles, and my focus is more on doing interesting research," she says. She became a full professor in 2004 and now manages a lab of 16 graduate students, five postdocs, and several undergrads.
In fact, 2004 was an all-around good year for Belcher. That year, she was also named a MacArthur Fellow. "My life just seemed to really take a turn at that point," she says.
The following year, Belcher had a baby boy. She says she appreciates the supportive environment for women at MIT. "Having people who have gone through that similar experience is really valuable, because some days I just think that I'm going insane," she says. "It's great to have people say, 'You can do it.' "
In addition to her work at MIT, Belcher is cofounder of nanotechnology start-up Cambrios Technologies, in Mountain View, Calif. Belcher is involved in several educational outreach activities involving kids interested in science and engineering.
Asked if she still feels homesick for Texas, the seventh-generation Texan says: "Once you're a Texan, you're always a Texan, and that is always home." Nevertheless, Belcher has created a life for herself in Boston, and her research is thriving. "I think the next five years are going to be a complete blast," she says.
A passion for teaching prompted Cherie R. Kagan to move from industry to academia. In January 2007, Kagan joined the University of Pennsylvania, her undergraduate alma mater, as a tenured associate professor of electrical and systems engineering and of materials science and engineering. She left a position as manager of the group on molecular assemblies and devices at IBM's T. J. Watson Research Center, in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. (C&EN, July 29, 2002, page 20).
Kagan and her husband, Christopher B. Murray, who made a simultaneous move from IBM to Penn, are now getting their labs up and running and are excited about the possibilities ahead. "It's an extremely busy time, and that's to be expected," she says.
Her research will have a broader scope than when she was at IBM. She is studying molecular, thin-film organic, and nanostructured materials in devices for electronics, optoelectronics, photonics, and sensors.
Kagan is building an interdisciplinary research group, which currently consists of four graduate students from chemistry, materials science, and electrical engineering. Kagan also directs the university's nanofabrication facility, which she says is being upgraded with new tooling and infrastructure.
Kagan and her husband now have two children, a daughter age three and a son age one and a half. They have settled into their new home in Pennsylvania and are in the process of painting it. It's reminiscent of five years ago, when Kagan and her husband were painting their then-new home in New York. "We're doing the same thing all over again," she says.
Ann Weber and Wendy Cornell didn't know each other prior to being profiled in C&EN (May 27, 2002, page 28; Sept. 30, 2002, page 19). At the time, Weber was senior director of medicinal chemistry at Merck Research Laboratories, in Rahway, N.J., and Cornell was group leader in the computer-assisted molecular modeling group at Novartis Pharmaceuticals, in Summit, N.J.
The two women met in 2002, when they were both invited to speak at a dinner honoring several of the "rising stars" C&EN profiled. The dinner was hosted by the ACS North Jersey Section's Metro Women Chemists Committee. Weber and Cornell met again at the ACS national meeting in Boston in 2002 and then at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Meeting in Princeton, N.J., in 2003.
In September 2004, Cornell left Novartis to take a position at Merck as director of molecular systems (modeling) in medicinal chemistry. Her group of eight molecular modelers supports more than 20 projects at the company, including a diabetes program that Weber heads. "The exciting thing about working in a modeling group is you tend to be involved in just about all parts of the drug discovery process," Cornell says.
Weber, who is now executive director of medicinal chemistry, has had her share of success as well. In 2002, Weber had been investigating β-3 adrenergic receptor agonists as a possible therapeutic treatment for obesity. She's also experienced disappointments: The program was discontinued after failing to show effectiveness in humans.
Around the same time, however, Weber had started a new diabetes program. The resulting compound, Januvia (sitagliptin), was approved by the Food & Drug Administration in October 2006, and a related product, Janumet (sitagliptin/metformin HCl), was approved in March. She now has another compound that is ready for late-stage clinical development. Although she can't elaborate on the details, she says she will have plenty to report in another five years.
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