First AAAS Marion Milligan Mason Awards Go to Four Outstanding Women in the Chemical Sciences

From left, Rush Holt, Shirley Malcom, Geri Richmond, Luisa Whittaker-Brooks, Kristin Parent, Katherine Mackey, Alison Fout, and AAAS board member Laura Greene| Michael Colella/Colelladigital.com

As they received the inaugural AAAS Marion Milligan Mason Awards for Women in the Chemical Sciences, all four award winners spoke with heartfelt appreciation of the mentors who guided them toward successful careers.

Kristin Parent began studying viruses after a professor urged her to take an advanced biochemistry lab. Katherine Mackey had a "very patient and encouraging" chemistry teacher in her sophomore year of high school. And, the first day Alison Fout met her advisor during her master's program, he told her "I'll be your mentor today and I'll be your mentor for the rest of your career."

"As I evaluate all the mentorship that I had during my chemistry career, I would like to pass that along to my students. And, I would hope that whenever they have the opportunity to mentor someone they would be as dedicated as the mentors I've had," said Luisa Whittaker-Brooks, who became interested in science as a high school student in Panama, thanks in large part to an enthusiastic teacher who told her she had a bright future in chemistry.

Marion Tuttle Milligan Mason | Photo courtesy of the Mason family

The awards, made possible by a $2.2 million bequest to AAAS, provide each chemist with $50,000 to ramp up their research projects while mentoring their own students. The women were recognized at a 15 October awards ceremony at AAAS.

A chemist and long-time AAAS member, the late Marion Tuttle Milligan Mason wanted to support the advancement of women in the chemical sciences. She also wanted to honor her family's commitment to higher education for women, as shown by her parents and her grandfather, who sent several daughters to college.

After graduating from Vassar College in 1949, Mason worked as a chemist at the American Cyanamid Company. When she learned that, compared to her colleagues who had recently earned doctoral degrees in chemistry, she was performing similar work for considerably less compensation, she felt motivated to continue her education, and in 1970 Mason earned her Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Rutgers University.

"I am creating this fund in honor of the memory of all the men and women of the Tuttle and Milligan families who believed in higher education for women and encouraged them in their pursuit of professional and business careers," Mason wrote in her will.

The fund will provide grants every two years, for the next 20 years, to outstanding women researchers in the chemical sciences. "Marion Milligan Mason understood how she had benefited from being born into a family that understood the importance of and supported the science education of women. It is that legacy that we come here to recognize and to continue," said Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources.

 
The new awards will enable the winners to collect the preliminary data they need to secure additional funding. | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

While the numbers of women entering STEM careers, including faculty positions in academia, has been growing, women are still, along with minorities and persons with disabilities, under-represented in these fields. The disparities are particularly stark in chemistry and other physical sciences, where just 30% of the jobs in these fields are held by women, according to the National Science Foundation.

"These are serious issues, and until we change the climate at our institutions and develop policies that will help these women — not just women but anyone who feels disadvantaged — our innovation will suffer and our nation will suffer," said AAAS President Geri Richmond, who is also a U.S. science envoy and presidential chair and professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon.

At AAAS "we are well aware of the historic barriers that women have faced in science and engineering," said Rush Holt, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. "We are committed to work for removal of those barriers to full participation."

At the ceremony, each of the winners thanked their mentors and supporters, and gave a brief description of their research.

Luisa Whittaker-Brooks, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Utah, focuses on integrating organic and inorganic materials — essentially plastics and semiconductors — at the nanoscale. She aims to create materials that could be used in devices that harvest thermal and solar energy, store it, and convert it to electricity. Such devices might some day turn the heat from our bodies, for example, into electricity.

Kristin Parent is an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Michigan State University, where she uses an advanced form of microscopy to determine the three-dimensional structure of large, complex viruses. This information sheds light on how viruses recognize and infect their hosts.

Katherine (Kate) Mackey is an assistant professor of Earth system science at the University of California, Irvine, who studies how marine phytoplankton respond to changing nutrient and light conditions. She is particularly interested in how climate change is affecting these microscopic organisms, as the oceans become more acidic and the vertical mixing of water layers becomes more sluggish.

Alison Fout, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, builds molecules and studies models of them in her lab. One of the questions she is investigating is how hemoglobin reduces nitrite, a process that affects blood pressure.

In their remarks at the awards ceremony, the winners explained that the grants will enable them to collect the preliminary data necessary to apply for further funding from federal or private agencies. Too often, early-career scientists find themselves in a Catch-22-like situation with regard to funding, especially when they want to do "high-risk, high-reward" research that could potentially lead to major breakthroughs.

"As an early-career scientist, this is very difficult at times, to get the funding for high-risk research," said Fout. "We need preliminary results, we need data, we need publications, and then we need to get that funding. And as you can imagine, all that takes time, and time costs money."

"The life of an early-career scientist has a lot do to with writing grants and hoping you get funding so that you can get those students and support them," agreed Mackey. "This grant will enable me to go out and get my students involved in fieldwork right away so that I can have the same effect on them that my mentors have had on my career."

Applications for the next Marion Milligan Mason awards will open on 16 November, 2015 with awards announced in January 2017.