Geraldine Richmond: A journey of turning points and unlikely destinations

Geraldine Richmond in her lab at UC Berkeley, 1970s, working on a laser Geraldine Richmond in the lab at UC Berkeley circa late 1970s

Professor Richmond (Ph.D. ’80, Chem; with George Pimentel). has graciously shared her acceptance speech for the 2018 Priestly Medal. This is an edited version of the speech that originally appeared in C&EN (Vol 96, Is 12, 2018).

I am enormously honored and humbled to stand here tonight as the 2018 Priestley Medalist. It takes a scientific village to win this coveted award, and the most important members of my village that I want to thank are my family; my physicist husband, Steve Kevan (Ph.D. ’80, Chem), whom I met my first day of graduate school and has since given me his endless support, and our awesome sons, Bryan and Dustin.

Being here tonight is such an unlikely destination when I consider where my journey began. In my early years, growing up on a farm in Kansas, I wasn’t even aware of a career in science, let alone that I could aspire to it. Still, my parents both dreamed that my three sisters and I would someday be college graduates, a goal they never reached because of the hardships of the Depression.

To raise our family, my father took on the task of farming while my mother was the local beautician working in a playhouse-sized shop that you could see outside our kitchen window. Eventually, we moved to Lindsborg, Kansas, where my parents opened a combined beauty salon and women’s clothing store so my sisters and I could attend schools there.

I grew up in that beauty salon. Unlike the beauty salons of today, the hairdryers looked and sounded like jet engines. The hairspray could as easily have killed any flying insect as hold any hairstyle in place in the midst of a Kansas tornado.  It was also a haven for women who were often isolated in their homes; a place to complain about your husband, worry aloud about your children and be around other women who understood and supported you. 

And my mom made them beautiful from the day they first entered her shop until that final event. My mother’s mantra was, “It doesn’t matter if you are alive or dead.What is most important is that your hair looks good.”

Once my oldest sister reached college age, my parents took another big gamble by selling the farm and moving their business to Manhattan, the home of Kansas State University. This gave us all the opportunity for college while still keeping us close by so we could help them at their store.

Time and again my parents took risks, sometimes risking all, to better our lives.  That has been a powerful and driving lesson for me.

Memories of my mother continue to be a source of inspiration, not to mention entertainment. Like me, my mother also had no concept of a science career, yet she was the first person to introduce me to chemistry, pointing out ingredients on hair-product labels that were on the periodic table. Her computational skills rivaled a pocket calculator’s and she always encouraged me to do well in math as a pathway to a good job.  She made it clear to her daughters that it was important to have a profession, as she had seen too many women without financial support after their husbands died or left them.

The first turning point in my life’s trajectory arrived in an eighth-grade geometry class. By then I realized that I was good at math. When I scored well in math aptitude tests, a school counselor told me that I would make a good secretary or a bookkeeper. But one day in geometry, my teacher Don Schmalzried watched me successfully solve a problem in a way he hadn’t taught and his praise sparked something in me. At that moment those words offered me enough encouragement to think I was capable of something beyond secretarial work, even though I had no idea what that would be. His encouragement in high school steered me toward my intellectual strengths in the midst of all those insane adolescent social pressures. 

And I am going to admit to something I have never told anyone in public before, so please do keep this as our secret.  I was a high school cheerleader.  There.  I finally said it! When I finally arrived at Kansas State University (KSU) in 1971, I traded in the pompoms and cheerleading uniforms for a slide rule and overalls and enrolled as a math major.

By my sophomore year, I discovered that the analytical gifts I’d applied to math were serving me just as well in chemistry. As my fascination with scientific questions grew, I realized the chemistry field also offered something else: the opportunity to do research. It was an easy decision to switch majors, and I was soon conducting analytical chemistry research in Cliff Meloan’s laboratory. 

At that time Meloan was concerned about the large amount of pesticides sprayed on crops. His idea was to make plastic cow pies laced with insecticide to kill bugs. However, one needed a smelly attractant to lure them in. Getting that meant extracting that smell from real cow pies,which they did in his laboratory using blenders. The hardest part of the project however was that blenders kept burning out. The replacement warranties did not include blending up cow pies.

After taking more physics and physical chemistry courses, I found my real home in Don Setser’s physical chemistry laboratory, which I shared with his graduate students, Bert Holmes and Paul Marcoux.

The KSU chemistry department head, “wild” Bill Fateley, showed me the power of a simple introduction when he put me in touch with George Pimentel, who became my graduate advisor at the University of California, Berkeley.

For my doctoral research project in Pimentel’s laboratory, I built a chemical laser to examine the high rotational states of HF produced by the photo-induced reaction of hydrogen with ClF. For those chemists in the audience you might recognize that this is not a particularly stable chemical in some environments, but even more explosive were the chemicals that I had to make it from:  ClF3 and ClF5.  So, it was an explosive graduate career and fortunately George loved explosions so it worked out fine.

A few months after I joined George’s group he took a position at NSF in Washington, D.C., and stayed there until a few months after I finished my PhD.  Nevertheless, I learned much from him, not only from his regular communication but also from his absence, which helped me develop self-reliance and independence. George’s willingness to take on the NSF role also taught me the importance of giving back to the community.

After my husband-to-be Steve Kevan and I earned our doctorates at UCB in chemistry in 1980, we headed east. Steve went to work at Bell Laboratories. I was intent on pursuing my combined love of teaching and research becoming the first female tenure-track faculty member in chemistry at Bryn Mawr College. In addition to honing my teaching skills, I assembled a talented group of undergraduate and graduate students who helped me build a laser laboratory and launch my own research program. As much as I loved my years at Bryn Mawr, especially the collegiality of Charles Swindell and Frank Mallory, I eventually realized a research-intensive university was a better place for my long-term career aspirations.

In 1985, the University of Oregon (U of O) came calling for both my husband and me in our respective fields. The campus has been an ideal fit in so many ways. In my 32 years there, I have never failed to be delighted by the many wonderful and highly intellectual faculty in my department and the quality of graduate students and post-doctoral associates who have joined my research group.

I also am eternally grateful to the University for the incredible support and flexibility it provided me over the years when Steve and I started our family.

Over the years, most of our studies have focused on understanding bonding and adsorptive processes at water surfaces in contact with air, atmospheric pollutants, and oils. From our early surface spectroscopic studies, we obtained detailed measurements of the molecular structure and orientation of soaps and surfactants as they adsorb at both air/water and oil/water interfaces, and how this adsorption affects the behavior of surface water molecules. As the complexity and desire for more detailed molecular information grew, we augmented our experimental studies with theoretical methods. This combined approach greatly accelerated our understanding of the molecular characteristics of these liquid interfaces, with a particular focus on surface water molecules at neat air/water and oil/water interfaces.

One of our most exciting discoveries contradicted the prevailing view that oil and water molecules would avoid each other at oil/water interfaces. Instead, we found evidence for a weak bonding interaction between interfacial water and oil that creates a unique molecular structure. Further studies showed how this interfacial structure influences the adsorptive properties of ions, surfactants, polyelectrolytes, and even peptoid nanosheets.

Our most recent studies are exploring these effects at spherical nanoemulsion surfaces. Studies of the adsorption of atmospherically relevant molecules continue to be the focus of our air/water surface studies.

Throughout my career, I have been committed to increasing the number and success of women in science. This passion grew from an unexpected source: a “Sex and Politics” course that I took just to satisfy an undergrad requirement. Far from what I expected from its juicy title, I received a bracing introduction to the gender-related challenges that working women face in male-dominated fields. It was the consciousness-raising lesson that I needed then and for all the years to follow.

The lesson especially came to the fore in the late 1990s as I was ascending at Oregon through the promotion process, and increasingly, I heard stories from other women chemists who were suffering gender inequities at mid-career, a time one might think such experiences would be waning. This was before the infamous MIT report on this issue.

With the help of Jean Pemberton and seed funding from the Dreyfus Foundation, I joined forces with nine other senior women chemistry faculty to form COACh, an organization to address the barriers that were so evident to all of us in our field. Over time, we launched a series of career-development workshops on negotiation, leadership, and communication techniques to empower women to be more strategic in their chemistry careers. Eventually, we expanded our scope to all the sciences and engineering, and we added workshops on mentoring, career balance, and entrepreneurship.

The success of COACh has far exceeded any of our expectations and we are still going strong. To date, over 20,000 women across all scientific and engineering disciplines have participated in our workshops at universities and professional settings across the country.

Our social science research team has surveyed and documented the impact of our programs on participants, and their stories of aspiration and achievement often reduce me to tears. In 2012 we began taking COACh programs abroad with a focus on scientists in developing countries. This work has allowed me to reach out to thousands of scientists, both male and female, in over two dozen countries throughout Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

I am especially appreciative of the funding agencies that have supported COACh over the years, as well as my assistant, Priscilla Lewis, who keeps the operation humming and is the essence of our mantra to be “relentlessly pleasant” in the face of all adversity.

Between teaching, research, and my other professional responsibilities, I am here to admit to you my biggest career failure: my inability to say “no.” This failing has been most apparent in the last five years with the coincidence of the AAAS presidency, the National Science Board appointment, the U.S. State Department Science Envoy appointment, and the expanded international COACh activities. There are no regrets, however, because this whirlwind has given me an invaluable perspective into the global scientific enterprise, and I’d like to share some of these insights with you.

  • I am in awe of the incredible impact that so many scientists are making in developing countries with limited resources. It is my hope that we not minimize the accomplishments of these gifted individuals and others outside of academia with our reliance on simplistic metrics such as publication numbers, impact factors, and H-indices.
  • Today, a vast array of critically important scientific careers outside academia keep the world’s scientific enterprise afloat, and they deserve more credit and visibility. Expanding our definition of the scientific community, I believe, serves to enrich us rather than dilute us.
  • As we celebrate the most diverse group of award recipients in the history of the ACS, we also must recognize that we have far to go in embracing and empowering all who seek scientific careers regardless of race, religion, social status, gender identification, or physical disability.

As I look back on my career, I take great pride in my research accomplishments but I realize that I have found my deepest fulfillment in the human interactions. My life is rich beyond measure from the mentors who have shared their gifts with me, the colleagues who have expanded my capacities, and the students and postdocs who have taught me even as I’ve “worked to teach them”.

I am constantly inspired by the spirit of the people I have met through COACh who prove time and again the power of courage and creativity. It’s easy for us to get lost in the complexities of our everyday work, but it’s important to remember that we can’t succeed without one another. Our human connections are crucial to making great science.

Finally, I want to acknowledge it’s not lost on me that I’m not the “typical” recipient of this award, which, of course, is evident from my background, my forays far beyond the laboratory, and most obviously, my gender. I am profoundly grateful to all who have been a part of placing this beautician’s daughter here on this podium at this moment.  Because of you, I hold the hope that my selection for the Priestley Medal is an important step toward making it typical, and that it serves as a welcome sign to the diversity of humanity that is our scientific future.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.