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ACS Award For Encouraging Women Into Careers In The Chemical Sciences

Recipients are honored for contributions of major significance to chemistry

by Susan J. Ainsworth
February 16, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 7

Credit: Courtesy of Mary Singleton
Credit: Courtesy of Mary Singleton

Sponsored by the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation Inc.

Through high school and as she earned a B.S. degree at Wheaton College, in Illinois, Mary F. Singleton had always felt encouraged to pursue a career in science or medicine. But in 1958, when she enrolled in the College of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, as the only incoming female graduate student, she found that she was "quite suddenly without any support system," she says. And like many other women chemists at the time, she was not encouraged to complete a Ph.D.

After earning a master's degree in chemistry in 1960, Singleton worked for two years at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory under Melvin Calvin, who, during that time, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. However, after traveling with her husband to Europe as he was completing postdoctoral assignments, she spent years trying to land another job as a chemist in California.

Instead of defeating her, those experiences only served to spark her passion for promoting women in the chemical sciences, says Singleton, 72, who retired from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in 1996.

"Through Mary's leadership, countless women chemists have seen their careers advance, their wages and promotion inequalities addressed, leadership roles within the American Chemical Society materialize, and dreams of exploring their technical creativity achieved," says Bryan Balazs, an associate program leader at LLNL.

Singleton was able to begin to make her mark in 1974 when affirmative action programs opened the door to a part-time position at LLNL's tritium facility, she says. "Initially, when I returned to the workforce after 12 years, I was much wiser and much more aware of the hurdles women faced in the chemical sciences," Singleton says. She immediately joined the LLNL Womens' Association, eventually serving as a board member for 20 years. "I soon became an activist in helping my women colleagues and in fighting for equal pay for women," she says.

Along with Luisa F. Hansen, a senior LLNL physicist, she cochaired the association's Salary Study Committee for 10 years. Together, they prepared an extensive report comparing the salaries of men and women in each directorate or discipline in the lab, Hansen says. The report triggered a positive response from the highest levels of management, Hansen adds.

Singleton rose through the ranks during her 22-year career at LLNL, working in tritium research, oil shale characterization and processing, and growth of crystals for the laser program, as well as managing three different nuclear facilities.

After retiring, Singleton participated in a class-action lawsuit against LLNL and the University of California for discrimination against women in ranking, promotion, and salaries. In the resulting settlement, the university paid almost $20 million in compensation to women employees, and several women were hired into top-level jobs at LLNL.

In addition, Singleton has always mentored women chemists at all stages of their careers, "continuing those efforts even today," Balazs says. She developed George Washington Carver and Marie Sklodowska Curie workshops, which have been presented at schools and special events. She has also organized women's history events at LLNL and within ACS.

After retiring from LLNL, Singleton returned to UC Berkeley to study the history of women in science. She helped to form an alumni group in the university's College of Chemistry and reestablish its Iota Sigma Pi chapter for graduate women in chemistry.

Within ACS, Singleton helped to start the Women Chemists Committee of the California Section and served as its chair for several years. She also served on the national WCC from 1994 to 2000. She recently contacted 200 women members of the Central New Mexico Section, inviting them to join her in starting a local WCC.

Singleton has been "a driving force" behind the development of young women chemists and women leaders, Balazs says. "I know firsthand that she approaches her efforts on behalf of women with sincerity, compassion, and extraordinary ability."

Singleton will present the award address before the Women Chemists Committee.


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