Browse professor Mary Virginia Orna’s personal website and the tagline “Critical thinking for challenging times” is bolded across the bottom. As a woman who wears many hats—scientist, professor, public speaker, book author, Catholic nun, and active member of several ACS committees—such a motto is apt for Orna. Colleagues have praised her lifelong commitment to challenging herself and her students to excel both inside and out of the classroom.
After pursuing a bachelor of science in chemistry in the 1950’s at Chestnut Hill College and then a master’s and Ph.D. in chemistry and analytical chemistry at Fordham University, Orna has inspired not only young women in the sciences, but students of all races and backgrounds to succeed. Her love of chemistry, teaching, writing and traveling has penetrated far and wide. She has authored or edited 14 books and more than 100 journal, encyclopedia and monograph articles and has received numerous honors and grants, including the prestigious George C. Pimentel Award for her remarkable contributions to chemical education.
Her new book, “Science History: A Travelers Guide” will soon be published in hardcopy. How does she do it all? “You don’t do it all at once. You use your time well. You have your priorities,” Orna says.
ACS caught up with Orna from her second home in central Europe. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
How did you first become interested in chemistry?
My parents gave my brother a chemistry set when he was 8 and I was 10. I took one look at it and I tell people that there was a ‘hostile takeover.’ I took it to my room and started producing smells, explosions and reactions that bubbled—all kinds of exciting things—which of course are now completely against the law. It was much more fun than playing with dolls. If I didn’t have a brother, a chemistry set would never have found its way into the house. You don’t give chemistry sets to girls, at least in those days you didn’t.
How did your love of chemistry continue as you grew older?
When I legitimately got my hands on chemicals in my high school laboratory, it reinforced that early experience. I had a wonderful chemistry teacher, but I also had another love: Latin. I loved the structure; it was very logical. I wanted to major in Latin [at Chestnut Hill College in Pennsylvania], but my mother said that I’d never be able to earn a living in it. I wanted to be independent, and my second love was chemistry, so I majored in chemistry.
As a woman pursuing the sciences back in the 1950’s, did you experience any roadblocks or discrimination?
Growing up I felt I could do anything I wanted. Even though my parents were not college-educated, there was no question that my siblings and I would go to college. I went to a women’s college, so I didn’t have anybody pushing me aside or exhibiting any prejudice.
At graduate school there were many guys around, but I didn’t have a problem asserting myself. One time at a summer institute for the National Science Foundation, we had to share computers on a bench. I was paired with a very large man who gradually kept easing me off the bench, so I just eased back. He was astounded. I said to myself, “I’m not going to let him push me around.” I fought back. You had to do that.
You ended up teaching chemistry at The College of New Rochelle starting in 1966, another all-women’s college. How did you then become interested in studying color and archaeological chemistry?
Every student had to take two semesters of a laboratory science, so they were flocking into biology and astronomy because they were frightened to death of chemistry. In 1977, the art department chair asked if I’d create a chemistry course for art majors. I had to think of a strong connection between the two, so I came up with color. However I didn’t know anything about it, so I attended the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University for a semester. They had a conservation center that was chaired jointly by a physical chemist and an art historian.
There I met Tom Mathews, another art historian, who believes that artists cannot really know anything about their materials unless they know some chemistry. We became good friends and ended up traveling around the world together. We went to various depositories of ancient manuscripts (mostly of Armenian origin dating back from the 8th to the 16th century)—like Jerusalem, Venice and Paris—and took microscopic samples of them. He did the art historical work, I did the pigment chemical analysis. We were the very first to publish the most definitive palette of the medieval manuscript by experiment. Meanwhile, I returned to New Rochelle and developed a brand new, successful course for art majors based on that material. My colleague, Madeline Goodstein, and I wrote the textbook for the course. It has been used in many universities.
In 1990, you began conducting study tours for students on the history of science. How did that come about?
At one point in the early 90’s, the faculty were encouraged to develop “mini courses” to span the month of January. A colleague in mathematics suggested we develop a course called “The History of Science and Mathematics” to fulfill their liberal arts and science credits. It was a two-week trip abroad to visit places where the history of science and mathematics was done, mostly in England and Scotland.
We did this every other year for about 10 years until money ran out, but by that time, a number of chemist acquaintance friends had heard about the trips and started coming along. Gradually we ended up with more adults on these trips than students. They were mostly chemists from industry or medical professionals. I now have a following of about 90 people; there’s always a waiting list. We just had a trip to central Europe in October. Out of that recently arose a book that I was working on with Tim Marney, which hopefully will soon see the light of day in hard copy. It’s called “Science History: A Travelers Guide.”
What do you find especially fascinating about scientific travel?
It’s not just any old travel. You’re not standing dumbly in front of the Eiffel Tower while some guy talks about how many megatons of steel are in the tower. You’re visiting a place where science history is made or where it is in enshrined. For example, the Pasteur Institute in Paris is precisely where Pasteur did his actual work. We could visit the rooms that he lived in and see the results of his work in his test tubes. We visited the University of Zurich, where Alfred Werner first made the inorganic chelate compounds. We saw test tube labels in his own handwriting. That’s awesome and is something you never forget. You’d never get that by reading a book or seeing a demonstration.
What is one of your favorite locations from the book?
People don’t usually realize that Rome has a lot of fascinating science. Each department at the University of Rome has its own museum. Their physics department, for example, has a physics museum with the original equipment used by Enrico Fermi to bombard nuclei with neutrons, which brought about the Atomic Age.
What is your favorite chapter of the book?
The problem is I’ve written a couple of those chapters. My favorite is my chapter on Paris, called ‘Paris: A Scientific “Theme Park.”’ In the time between breakfast and lunch in Paris, you can cover ground where ten elements were discovered. You just have so much there. You can walk to all of the buildings and museums where all of this incredible work took place.
What do you enjoy the most about your job?
I have always liked public speaking the best. I love to get up in front of a large audience and give a talk because I don’t have to mark their papers or give a test. I can talk without interruption about something I really love. I can tell new jokes. It’s fun to catch people’s eyes in the audience. It brings out the actor in me.
What is your favorite joke?
One time while speaking about medieval manuscripts at the local ACS section in Rochester, New York, the slide projector was malfunctioning and at one point an image of Jesus was projected onto the ceiling. Finally it started slowly coming down and I said, “Look. There he comes, he’s descending. But it’s all wrong, it’s the wrong direction today.” Half the audience cracked up, the other half looked around wondering what was so funny. It happened to be “Ascension Thursday,” the day that Christ was supposed to have ascended. I said, “In order for this to be correct, he’d have to reverse direction.” I think that was probably one of the funniest things that happened.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
My work is only a small part of my life. I’m a religious sister, so a large part of my life is my journey toward God, of finding myself, of searching for self-identity, which is a lifelong process. I get up every morning at 4:30 am to make time for prayer. I try to carve out about an hour and a half for a long run. I don’t waste a minute of my day. I pack it all in.