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Career Ladder

Career Ladder: Joan Frye

Science fiction inspires physical chemistry professor turned NSF program director

by Alexandra A. Taylor
August 1, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 31


Credit: Courtesy of Joan Frye
A black-and-white photo of Joan Frye graduating from high school.
Credit: Courtesy of Joan Frye

Learning science from Spock


Born and raised in Philadelphia, Frye first became interested in science watching science fiction shows on television. “I grew up in the era of ‘Star Trek,’ and I was fascinated by the science in that,” she recalls. “Those television characters were my childhood heroes.” Frye attended a small Catholic college prep school where she says “the science was hands-on long before people talked about hands-on.”

Falling for physical chemistry


As a college freshman, Frye intended to major in biology and apply to medical school. When she started taking chemistry classes, however, her plans changed. “I fell in love with physical chemistry. It just really grabbed me by the throat.” Frye put herself through college, first with clerical work and then by working at Arco Chemical. She attended classes at night until she had saved enough money to attend Temple University full-time.

Helping start an adviser’s lab


Frye attended grad school at the University of Chicago, where she worked with Takeshi Oka. Frye was his first grad student and helped him set up his lab from scratch, which she calls a fantastic experience. “If you want to go into academia, it’s really great training.” The small group size made research challenging given the group’s ambitious agenda, but Frye was excited to be working in laser spectroscopy. She later completed postdocs at the University of Technology Vienna as well as Brookhaven and Argonne national laboratories.

A photo of Joan Frye with four other people in a lab at the University of Chicago.
Credit: Courtesy of Joan Frye

Research recruiting woes


Frye was recruited by Howard University and accepted the position because she wanted to help increase the number of African American Ph.D. chemists. She got tenure but left Howard after six years. “I was totally unprepared for the fact that a lot of students don’t necessarily want to go into physical chemistry. I was never able to get the number of grad students that I felt I absolutely needed to get the research done.”

Shifting gears to government


Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
A current photo of Joan Frye taken at the National Science Foundation.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN

Frye started working at the National Science Foundation during a sabbatical from Howard. She originally planned to return but changed her mind when a permanent position became available. She thought, “Maybe I can have more of an impact on outreach and supporting faculty members and chemists of color.” Frye currently serves as the acting deputy head of the Office of Integrative Activities, which fosters interdisciplinary research. “I never in a million years thought I’d wind up working here, but it has been an honor.”

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