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Meet Geraldine Richmond, 2018 Priestley Medalist

On her path to success in physical chemistry, Geri Richmond has never stopped working to pull others up with her

By Sam Lemonick
March 19, 2018 | APPEARED IN Volume 96 Issue 12
In brief

The 2018 Priestley Medalist, Geraldine (Geri) Richmond, made her mark with insights about how molecules behave at the air-water and oil-water interfaces, but her contributions extend far beyond the lab. She helped found COACh, an organization dedicated to giving women skills for successful science careers; served on the National Science Board; and traveled as a science envoy in Southeast Asia for the U.S. State Department. A commitment to helping others ties it all together. Read on for C&EN’s profile of Richmond as well as the award address she’ll deliver at the ACS national meeting in New Orleans.


Geri Richmond is on a mission. “Right now, I feel this urgency to give other people the insights I’ve gained,” she says. “I just have a head full of stuff that could be of value to people who want to do something similar.”

“Something similar” encompasses many things. Richmond, a pioneer in a field whose importance is still growing, is responsible for fundamental discoveries about how water molecules behave at water-oil and water-air interfaces. She has also spent more than three decades as a chemistry professor at the University of Oregon, served on the National Science Board, and been president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She founded and continues to serve as chair of COACh, an organization dedicated to helping women advance in science and engineering careers.

In recognition of all that—and more—she is now the winner of the 2018 Priestley Medal, the American Chemical Society’s highest honor.

Richmond will put her Priestley on a shelf alongside the National Medal of Science, the Joel Henry Hildebrand Award in the Theoretical & Experimental Chemistry of Liquids, the Davisson-Germer Prize in Atomic or Surface Physics, and other signifiers of her successful career. They honor her scientific accomplishments as much as her work as a mentor, adviser, and colleague. These days especially, Richmond is passing on her insights as she strives to help other scientists succeed in their own careers.


Related: Geraldine Richmond named 2018 Priestley Medalist

The back office

Richmond’s office is a little hard to find. Tucked away on the second floor of the university’s physics building, you have to go through her research group’s wet lab, past her students’ offices, then through a second room crowded with beeping lasers, tools, and other sensitive instruments.

Finally inside, you’ll find the office crowded with photos of her family and past group members, memorabilia, and of course, those awards. Each of her sons spent part of the first year of his life in this office, playing in a playpen while Richmond worked. On one shelf sits a piece of machined aluminum and stainless steel, the first thing she made in a metal shop.

That was at the University of California, Berkeley, where she got her Ph.D. under George C. Pimentel, who won his own Priestley Medal in 1989. Richmond remembers learning her way around that shop.

“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” she says. “I had never used a metal machine shop before.”

The location of Richmond’s office says a lot about her relationship with her trainees. She is not a micromanager. She’s like Pimentel in that way. During Richmond’s tenure as a grad student in his lab, he spent almost all his time in Washington, D.C., working as deputy director of the National Science Foundation. Richmond, a big proponent of giving back to the science community, is gone a lot, too.

Take one three-week stretch in February as an example. Richmond spent four days in New Orleans, where she gave the keynote address at a meeting of scientists who’ve been studying the aftermath of the disastrous 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She came home briefly, then traveled to Syracuse University to deliver a lecture, before flying to tiny St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., to give a talk to chemistry majors. A few days later she was off to a National Science Board meeting in D.C. and then to Tunisia to work with women scientists there.

Richmond was in her lab for four days. Her students have to be self-reliant, a lesson Richmond learned from Pimentel. But that doesn’t mean she’s not paying attention.

Credit: Courtesy of Geri Richmond
Richmond works at the first laser table she built in her lab at Bryn Mawr College in 1982.

“They may think that I just walk into the office and walk out, but I keep a close eye on them,” she says. “When I can tell that something’s not going right, that’s when I need to connect with them.” It could be a problem with their work or something outside the lab, but when she senses that they’re struggling, she steps in to help them find a way forward.

That she keeps a close eye on her students shows in unexpected ways. In February, Richmond’s newest graduate student, Rebecca Altman, passed her qualifying exams and officially advanced to Ph.D. candidate status. The Richmond lab has a long tradition of celebrating important occasions by “pieing” the person of honor.

Related: Geraldine Richmond among chemists to win presidential science awards

Altman took her cream pie in the face with good humor. Another student, Brandon Schabes, had a second pie waiting, this one with Richmond’s name on it. But before he knew what was happening, he was the one with cream dripping from his hair, and Richmond was holding an empty pie tin, laughing. She knows their tricks better than they do.

Richmond acknowledges her hands-off style of management doesn’t work for every student. “I tell them I’ll guide you until you take ownership. And when you take ownership, I expect you to drive it largely yourself,” she says of students’ Ph.D. projects.

“She was very good at releasing the reins and letting you explore the areas you wanted to explore” and then having you bring those ideas back to her, says Derek Gragson, a physical chemist and associate dean at California Polytechnic State University who got his Ph.D. with Richmond. He says he has drawn from her example in learning how to be an adviser.

It’s that hands-off approach that attracted fifth-year doctoral student Brittany Gordon to Richmond’s lab. Gordon did extensive self-directed research as an undergraduate at New College of Florida. She became aware of Richmond while she was researching solar cells in Shannon Boettcher’s lab at the University of Oregon as part of the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. Richmond founded the REU site at Oregon in 1987; it’s the longest-running REU site in the country.

Gordon knew she wouldn’t need a “helicopter” adviser to keep her motivated but also that she has a bad habit of falling down rabbit holes. She says that’s what makes Richmond a great adviser: She lets Gordon take the lead but steps in when she thinks Gordon is getting sidetracked.

Gordon sees it as preparing for her own career as a principal investigator. “We’re not going to have someone holding our hands the rest of our lives,” she says.

The breakthroughs

Credit: Amiran White
Richmond in her office at the University of Oregon.

Richmond expects her team members to take charge of their research and to challenge her when they think she’s wrong. That’s how one of her most important papers—a 2001 Science paper that precisely describes the ordering of water molecules at an oil-water interface—came to be (DOI: 10.1126/science.1059514).

Her University of Oregon lab’s work in the late 1980s and early ’90s used the nonlinear spectroscopy technique called second-harmonic generation (SHG) to study solid-liquid interfaces. Later, she would move almost exclusively to using a related technique, vibrational sum frequency spectroscopy (VSFS), to study the air-water and oil-water interfaces. Both techniques were pioneered by Yuen-Ron Shen at UC Berkeley.

The junction between different types of liquids or other types of matter causes a break in symmetry that these nonlinear methods can detect. In SHG, two photons from a laser beam combine at the interface to generate a signal photon that’s twice the frequency of the input beams. VSFS operates on the same principles but uses two photons of different frequencies, one infrared and one visible. By scanning the infrared beam through a range of wavelengths, scientists using the technique can measure vibrational spectra and the orientation of molecules of all kinds sitting at interfaces.

Richmond was interested in VSFS to study the oil-water interface. The main challenge to using VSFS at the time was building a tunable IR laser. Then-grad student Gragson had already built one and used VSFS to explore the air-water interface. His initial success led to further studies of hydrogen bonding at water’s surface, including atmospherically relevant adsorbates, by many of her graduate students and postdocs.

Two of Richmond’s other group members, John C. Conboy, now at the University of Utah, and postdoc Marie Messmer, who later became a professor at Lehigh University, wanted to try VSFS on the oil-water interface, but the IR laser system in their part of the lab was not designed for VSFS experiments.

“I was very skeptical that VSFS experiments using this much simpler laser system would work,” Richmond recalls. But because she expects them to take ownership of their research, she let them try it. Sure enough, they obtained the spectrum of the surfactant sodium dodecyl sulfate at the interface between D2O and carbon tetrachloride within a day or two, which they published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 1995 (DOI: 10.1021/ja00135a032).

Related: Geraldine Richmond to lead AAAS

That paper, Richmond says, gave her oil-water research a real boost, and she’s been pursuing that direction ever since. It took another six years to get to the seminal Science paper. Her grad student Larry Scatena, now the director of the University of Oregon’s Shared Laser Facility, was able to make measurements of the bare oil-water interface that required higher sensitivity and purer solvents than Conboy and Messmer’s work. The paper showed for the first time that water molecules strongly orient themselves along the interface and weakly bond to oil molecules. Richmond marks her decision to let Conboy, Messmer, and Scatena follow through on their hunches as the launch of some of her most prominent research efforts.

Like most things with Richmond, the list of her contributions to surface science is long. Her group’s measurements at the oil-water and air-water interfaces have produced observations of how environmentally and biologically important molecules adsorb and orient at liquid surfaces. In the early 2000s, she began adding a theoretical element to her work, confirming observations generated by VSFS and adding details about molecular bonding at and near interfaces.

“The whole field of research into properties of water is extremely active,” says Richard Van Duyne, a physical chemist at Northwestern University, who nominated Richmond for the Priestley Medal. “Richmond is one of the world’s foremost contributors to our current understanding of the chemical processes that occur at water surfaces.”

The workshop

Credit: Amiran White
Richmond surprises group member Brandon Schabes with the pie he intended for her in the group’s lunch corner.

Richmond’s accomplishments extend far beyond the lab. Nothing embodies that so well as COACh. She founded the group—whose name originally stood for Committee on the Advancement of Women Chemists but that now serves women and men in all physical sciences and engineering—in 1998 with other female professors around the country.

The program was inspired in part by Richmond’s mother. Lucille Richmond had a salon in Lindsborg, Kan., where Richmond worked as a girl. Not only was it the place where she learned her first chemistry—her mother would point out the names of chemicals on the labels of beauty products—but also “the beauty shop in those days was a female haven,” Richmond explains.

A haven like this was something she sought out years later in Oregon. She organized a group of female colleagues from the university who would gather at her house outside Eugene on occasional Saturdays to make beads out of Fimo clay and talk. Their husbands would keep hot clay coming and their kids played in other rooms. “I realized how much I missed that female camaraderie my mother had back in the beauty shop,” Richmond says with a laugh.

Beyond talking about their families and admiring the beads they’d made, the women started talking about their careers. That’s when Richmond began to realize how many challenges they faced in common, even as midcareer scientists.

Richmond and chemist Jeanne Pemberton of the University of Arizona got a dozen women together from universities around the country and applied for a grant from the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation. She wanted to get female professors together for a series of discussions and workshops about how they could advance their careers. “I was confident in the power. I knew that you just bring these women together and it will be successful,” Richmond says.

At the group’s first meeting, Richmond recalls, everyone said they were basically doing fine. Sure, maybe their male colleagues had it a little easier, but these women were all professors at world-class institutions.

It only took one more meeting for the veil to drop. The second meeting was a negotiation skills workshop, and when they started talking about their own negotiations they realized how bad things were. One person was losing her lab space; others were being passed over for promotions and raises. By their third meeting six months later, the group’s work enabled the women to start making gains in their jobs.

COACh started shortly thereafter, with funding from the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. At first, it was only for women who were tenure-track chemistry professors. The analogy Richmond uses is oxygen masks on airplanes: They first had to take care of themselves before being able to help others. But the program has now expanded to all women and men in the physical sciences in the U.S., as well as across the world. This winter, COACh held its first workshop for community college professors.

The program still runs out of Richmond’s office, thanks to her longtime assistant and COACh coordinator Priscilla Lewis. She organizes all the COACh workshops around the country and the world: sessions on negotiating a salary, advancing careers, giving effective lectures, mentoring students, and more.

Richmond teaches people how to do their own COACh workshops, especially in other countries, and leads mentoring, communication, and negotiation workshops. In addition to Lewis and Richmond, an advisory board of more than two dozen people and a handful of facilitators travel the globe to lead COACh workshops.

“When you undertake this long-standing problem of gender discrimination, you have to be a very special person to believe that you can make progress. And Geri has made progress. There’s clearly a lot more work that needs to be done, but she’s had a huge impact on the quality of women’s lives in academics and the quality of women’s careers,” says Mary J. Wirth, an analytical chemist at Purdue University who was at those first meetings Richmond organized.

The front of the room

Credit: Courtesy of Geri Richmond
Richmond stands with women from across Africa at a 2016 U.S. State Department-sponsored COACh workshop in Kigali, Rwanda, that was focused on people with careers in water science and engineering.

Richmond’s drive to be a mentor and role model shows up in less explicit ways, too. The trajectory of her career hinged on her decision in 1985 to leave her first professorship at Bryn Mawr College—a liberal arts institution where her focus was more on teaching and less on her research—for the University of Oregon.

That move put her in a position to achieve the heights she has in her field of chemistry. One could argue she wouldn’t have a Priestley without it. But the decision to leave was about more than her own success.

She remembers asking herself at the time, do I want to be in the back of the conference room with my students, or do I want to be at the lectern as a role model? She chose the latter.

At Oregon, her research career took off, she founded COACh, and she got involved in the public policy work that would take her to Washington, D.C., and around the world as then-president Barack Obama’s science envoy in Southeast Asia. She has become the role model she’s striven for, even if it’s sometimes a thankless job.

“We need people in this field who are willing to be high profile. Her willingness to step up and take the lead on things that are related to policy and diversity and all of these issues that she’s championed, I think it’s so important because otherwise science just stays in the background,” says Aaron Massari, a physical chemist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, who uses VSFS to study interfaces in organic electronics.

The oil spill

Richmond’s trip to New Orleans in February fired her up. She’d been invited to speak at the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill & Ecosystem Science Conference, an annual meeting set up in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. She couldn’t wait to tell her group about it when she got back.

There are a few ways to clean up oil when it spills into the ocean. It can be contained at the surface with booms and burned or skimmed off. Or people can use dispersants, chemicals that emulsify oil and sink it into the water column. That stops the oil from washing up on beaches and makes it easier for naturally occurring microbes in the water to break it down, although there are questions about which approach does less harm overall.

Dispersants are why the conference organizers invited Richmond. Recently, her group has been applying its spectroscopic techniques to the surfaces of emulsified droplets, both oil in water and the reverse.

The people who clean up oil spills, including oil companies like Exxon, have been looking for new dispersants. The ones most commonly used are sold under the name Corexit, a line of dispersants comprising emulsifiers and solvents designed to lower the surface tension of oil as much as possible. But even the scientists at the New Orleans meeting aren’t sure how these emulsions form and break up.

One of the main ingredients in Corexit is dioctyl sulfosuccinate sodium salt (AOT). Richmond published a paper last year describing how water, oil, and AOT interact at the surface of nanoemulsion droplets (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2017, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1700099114).

As my career has advanced, I realized that the research alone is not enough.

Work like Richmond’s is vital to spill responders, says David Westerholm, director of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response & Restoration. Fundamental research can lead to new products that are more effective or more environmentally friendly than those available today, although he cautions that the road from lab bench to a commercial product is sometimes long and arduous.

Richmond hopes her work can contribute to formulating improved dispersants and thinks her presence at the meeting demonstrates that her work and that of others in the field of surface science will be critically important in the years to come. “This meeting was really a confirmation of that,” Richmond says.

Richmond is proud that in addition to winning the Priestley Medal for her contributions to physical chemistry and surface science, she’s also being recognized for her work in service of other scientists through her founding of COACh, her time as president of AAAS, her appointment to the National Science Board, her role as a U.S. science envoy, and more.

“I think it sends a very strong message that success and impact isn’t all about h-indices and citation metrics,” Richmond says.

“I was told when we started COACh that it would look as if I wasn’t committed to research,” Richmond says. “I love the research and the wonderful students it has brought me. But as my career has advanced, I realized that the research alone is not enough.”

What Agnes taught her

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Agnes Pockels did pioneering work in surface science from her kitchen.

There’s a story that Richmond likes to tell in her lectures, about a 19th-century scientist named Agnes Pockels. It goes like this:

A teenage Pockels, washing dishes in her kitchen, noticed that the surface of the water in the sink changed when she added soap. So she started experimenting. Using a button and a piece of thread, Pockels tested water’s surface tension and showed it was related to the concentration of soap.

But women were barred from going to college at the time, so Pockels got her brother’s help to access scientific literature and continue her experiments, eventually developing a device to measure surface tension. In 1891, she published a paper in Nature about her device with Lord Rayleigh. Irving Langmuir won his 1932 Nobel Prize in Chemistry using an updated version of her device.

There’s an addendum that Richmond doesn’t often add. It goes like this:

A teenage Richmond had a homework assignment about pulleys in her first-year physics class at Kansas State University. She was trying to visualize the forces involved, but she didn’t have anything in her apartment that resembled a pulley. So she improvised, hanging up a solid bracelet and slinging a necklace over it so she had a basic pulley to experiment with.

“I always think of that story when I think of Agnes,” Richmond says. Pockels’s courage has stuck with Richmond, as well as an important lesson: You don’t need the fanciest experiment to do important science.

Others appreciate these attributes of Richmond as well. “When you look at those [early] papers,” which she published as a professor at Bryn Mawr College, they were really ahead of their time, says Franz M. Geiger, a physical chemist at Northwestern University who is also an expert in nonlinear spectroscopy. “She was teaching at a small institution and at the same time really figured out important fundamental responses of interfaces to electrolytes and potentials. I would imagine that when compared to the nonlinear optics efforts being developed at the R1 institutions, the deck was totally stacked against her when she began. And yet, something kept her going, and that to me is inspiring. I think that’s inspired other people as well.”

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