Jacqueline Thomas admits being nervous when she took the podium last fall to speak about pursuing a career in chemistry to more than 100 high school girls and their mothers at the Hispanic Engineering, Science & Technology Week conference in Edinburg, Texas. “I understood that I had the opportunity to influence teenage girls and their moms to pursue science degrees, and I didn’t want to mess it up,” says Thomas, a 29-year-old Ph.D. chemist at Procter & Gamble. “At one point, that could have been me and my mom in that crowd.”
Growing up in a Hispanic family in south Texas, Thomas knew that embarking on a career in science wasn’t the most popular venture. But she did it anyway. “My parents believed I could do it,” says Thomas, who is the daughter of a nurse and a retired firefighter. “And I did because of their support.”
Science hooked her early on.
The husband of her first-grade teacher was a chemist who, one day, performed a series of demonstrations for Thomas’ class. The scene with the typical dry ice and other basic chemistry exhibits captured her imagination. “I just remember it being very magical, very inspiring, a lot of aahs and oohs,” Thomas says. “It really grabbed my attention.”
Her love of science lasted through high school and beyond. The Corpus Christi, Texas, native, who says that most of her family didn’t attend college, ventured 40 minutes away to study math and science at Texas A&M University, Kingsville. “No matter what I learned, I was always interested in it, whether it was inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry,” Thomas remembers. “The more I did experiments, the more I did research as an undergraduate, it just fueled my fire to really want to go to graduate school.”
At Kingsville, Thomas served as a supplemental instructor for general chemistry, worked in the chemistry stock room, and bagged groceries at a Kingsville grocery store for six months to help pay for school. In addition to working in three professors’ labs during her four years at Kingsville, she interned for the plastics division of Celanese Chemicals in Bishop, Texas.
In 2001, Thomas won an ACS Scholarship, which provides up to $5,000 annually to underrepresented minority students pursuing a degree in the chemical sciences. It helped pay her tuition and fees during the final two years of her undergraduate schooling, allowing Thomas to focus on her studies.
A National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates internship under David E. Bergbreiter brought Thomas to the chemistry department at Texas A&M’s College Station campus in 2002. “That’s kind of how I ended up going to graduate school at Texas A&M,” Thomas says.
At College Station, Thomas studied mechanisms of organic reactions, examining selectivity and isotope effects, isolating intermediates, and doing computational modeling. She earned a Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry in 2008 under the guidance of Daniel A. Singleton.
Singleton describes Thomas as outgoing and active, yet well-meaning and caring to those she encounters. He’s not surprised that Thomas has taken an active role in encouraging others to go into science. “She was one of those people who was always involved. She wasn’t just a potted plant,” he says. “There was never a day where she didn’t work on her list of things to do.”
Thomas attributes being an ACS Scholar to winning an NSF Graduate STEM Fellowship in K–12 Education. As a graduate student, Thomas worked with fourth- and fifth-graders at Jones Elementary School, in Bryan, Texas, many of whom spoke English as a second language. For roughly 10 hours a week, Thomas tutored students and taught classes in math and science because the school had difficulty hiring teachers in those areas.
In April 2008, Thomas left College Station to work for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, where she now lives with her husband, Zach. She is preparing two patents, so she declined to give specifics about her work, saying only that she still does mechanistic studies and molecular modeling. “Instead of fundamental research for the sake of knowing, I’m doing fundamental research for the sake of optimizing large-scale processes for many reasons, including safety and cost-effectiveness,” she says.
Thomas has used opportunities, many provided by being a former ACS Scholar, to speak to young people, including minorities, about careers in science. “It’s really been helping me still to reach out to the community to help others and inspire others in chemistry,” she says. These days, she seeks opportunities to talk to others whenever possible, hoping to drive them to careers in science. She sees younger versions of herself—a hope-filled girl with few inhibitions—in the children she speaks to. Perhaps Thomas will be to them what her first-grade teacher’s husband was to her.