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Dr. Donna Nelson - Chemist
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Chemistry is everywhere you look. When you strike a match, the way a cake rises in the oven, or when your bicycle begins to rust if you leave it out in the rain. All of this happens because of chemical reactions – when two or more molecules interact and something happens.

In my work as a physical organic chemist, I study the rate and speed of chemical reactions and then I compare and contrast them. Sometimes I will modify one of the molecules to see if it changes and how quickly the reaction occurs. For example, a fireworks display is a complex series of chemical reactions. The colors in fireworks are made up of many different chemicals combined together to react with heat and energy. The amount of heat and energy applied will change the way the colors of fireworks look. In addition, by varying the amount of the chemicals responsible for a particular color, you can make different shades, so basic red could become maroon or pink. 

Just like the many chemical ingredients in fireworks, there are many chemical ingredients that make up things we use every day from medicine to laundry soap. Every single one of these chemicals needs to be tested and re-tested to see their reactions in many different types of situations. The people that develop new things like soap and medicine are called synthetic chemists. In my job as an organic chemist, I provide these synthetic chemists with important information about their ingredients. Thus, my work contributes to making sure that all of the ingredients of a new product work well together.

The work that I do is very exciting and some days it feels like a big brain teaser. As a kid I always loved brain teasers. Although this might have been the first clue that I was going to be a scientist, I always thought I was going to be the town doctor just like my father.

I grew up in the small town of Eufaula, Oklahoma, and at times, my father was the only doctor around. I remember once when we came home from a movie we saw people sitting on our lawn waiting for us. There had been an accident and because the closest hospital was 30 miles away, the injured people were taken to our house.

My father found the life as a small town doctor challenging. He never said I couldn’t do it, but he and my mother supported my other interests like math and science. With my parent’s encouragement, I went on to University of Oklahoma where I decided to major in chemistry.

In Eufaula, almost everybody is at least some part Cherokee, Chickasaw, or Creek, so going to a big university, where there were barely any Native Americans, was a big shock. It took time to adjust to being one of very few women and the only Native American in my department. I survived by being quiet in school, but very persistent.

When I decided to go to graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, people laughed at me. They said, “You go to graduate school?!” I learned to ignore their comments and have confidence in myself. I graduated with my Ph.D. in chemistry in 1980. After doing research at Purdue University, I went back to the University of Oklahoma to become a professor of chemistry.

I am still the only Native American and one of only three women in my whole department, but I am no longer quiet! I work very hard to educate people about the status of women and minorities in the sciences at universities around the country. I have learned persistence and confidence are the keys to success, and that speaking the truth, even if it is hard for people to hear, helps everyone. 

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