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Women in Chemistry
(L to R) Michelle Wiest, Lisa Ellingson, Victoria Johnston Gelling, Xiaofan Yang

Chem lab? No problem.
Science geeks? Not likely.


Distinguished guests, on a tour at North Dakota State University, enter a chemistry lab, perhaps with unexamined preconceptions about what they’ll hear and who is likely to tell them the good news. Their expectations, though not necessarily articulated before entering the room, are neatly shattered by reality.

Victoria Johnston Gelling begins to describe the work of the research group. A collection of chemists and polymers and coatings scientists are developing and testing coatings for aircraft, working to find a way to reduce corrosion but to not cause cancer in humans, the flaw of the currently most successful option. She prefaces a description of how they test coatings by saying, “We simply ...” and then proceeds to outline a process that is anything but simple.

Gelling is extremely articulate and clearly knows her stuff. With her doctorate nearly completed, at only 25, she is on her way to stardom, at least in the world of chemistry.

Her colleagues in the lab are equally impressive.

Michelle Wiest, 21, a member of the university’s national championship softball team, exudes a quiet confidence and has to be coaxed to admit that chemistry appeals to her because she’s good at it. With a little more nudging, she allows that a career in chemistry makes sense because everything—literally—involves chemistry. She may, on the other hand, go to medical school. She has a few months to decide.

Lisa Ellingson graduated from her high school and Fergus Falls (Minn.) Community College the same year, 1996, completed her undergraduate degree in chemistry with a polymers and coatings option by 1999, and immediately entered graduate school. Now 22, she has already worked with the National Gallery of Art on a project involving conserving and refinishing bronze outdoor sculptures of artists such as Rodin and Moore.

Polymers and coatings and chemistry at NDSU also have attracted the interest of international scholars. Xiaofan Yang has been, along with Gelling, Wiest and Ellingson, in the same lab since 1997. Her experiences, ranging from waiting out a cultural revolution in China before being able to attend the university to now having a career that means she sometimes lives thousands and thousands of miles away from her husband, are instructive to the rest of the lab colleagues.

The Department of Polymers and Coatings at North Dakota State is nationally and internationally recognized, and one of a handful of academic departments to specialize in coatings. Industry, government and academia all compete vigorously for the opportunity to employ NDSU’s graduates. In fact, Yang’s presence here is a testament to the reputation this NDSU department holds. Ask her if it is as famous as some here like to think and she says, “Actually, yes.” She came to this lab from a postdoctoral position at the University of Wales in Cardiff.

Not to put too fine a point on the gender issue, but there are few female role models in chemistry or polymers and coatings. And there are stereotypes that assume scientists are, by and large, male people.

When these women travel to present their research findings, as they did recently at NASA, for example, tourists and scientists alike are shocked to meet them. Tourists assume they are on holiday and seem hard pressed to comprehend the breezy response, “Oh, we’re going to present research at NASA.” Scientists assume they’ve just barely escaped from a snowstorm. “It’s kind of fun to tell people you’re in chemistry,” says Ellingson, with notable understatement.

Even though people often assume that because they’re female they’re training to be high school chemistry teachers, this group exhibits much more enjoyment at breaking such barriers than annoyance, save one comment. “I’m getting tired of people saying ‘I’ve seen the movie Fargo,’” Gelling admits.

The various stints of the four women are about to come to a close. Graduations and contract completions are looming in May, but they will keep in touch, both as future leaders in the study of corrosion as well as friends.


— Laura McDaniel

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Laura McDaniel: laura_mcdaniel@ndsu.edu
Last Updated: Monday, 05-Jan-2009 14:05:00 CDT
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