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Highlighting Women in Catalysis

March is Women’s History Month, and to mark the occasion, ACS Catalysis asked women scientists in the field to reflect on how they got started and where they hope to see women in science in the next 20 years.

Josephine M Hill

Professor, Department of Chemical & Petroleum Engineering, University of Calgary

What inspired you to get into the field of catalysis?

When I first learned about catalysis, I was fascinated that such a small amount of material could have such a large effect on a reaction. I was hooked from there! I was fortunate to have wonderful mentors who encouraged me. In particular, one mentor told me that if I was going to do a Ph.D. I should ‘go somewhere good.’ I went to the University of Wisconsin – Madison and studied with Jim Dumesic.

 What do you hope to see from women in science in the next 20 years?

In 20 years, I hope that we are no longer talking about women in science because there are no more issues. It’s not a matter of women (or other minorities) fitting in with the current system – the entire system has to change. We have to accept that the issues are complex and require critical thinking to solve. All too often we fall back on numbers – of papers, of grants, of students graduated, etc. – because everyone can count. This simplistic thinking, however, ignores the actual impact of the work that people are doing and of what is important for society. Women bring a different perspective to problems and are enabling (and catalyzing!) change. Diversity in all aspects is key to making a better world.

Kandis Leslie Abdul-Aziz
Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering,
Material Science and Engineering Program

What inspired you to get into the field of catalysis?

Prior to attending graduate school, I worked in industry for about five years. One of the most impressionable experiences I had was as a refinery chemist. My job tasks were ensuring the quality of chemical products and analyzing environmental wastewater. I was surprised at the environmental ramifications of select pollutants in our wastewater as a consequence of the production of commodity chemical products from petrochemicals. It is that industrial experience that I think back to as a motivator behind the research we do in heterogeneous catalysis to develop sustainable processes that promote a circular economy.

What do you hope to see from women in science in the next 20 years?

To answer this question, I think about the accomplishments of women in science within the past 20 years within the catalysis field, which has been immense. From notable figures including Francis Arnold, who is a Nobel laureate, to the late Maria Flytzani-Stephanopoulos, and many others. What I hope is that more women will enter the catalysis field and that their work and accomplishments are celebrated and highlighted.

Odile Eisenstein

Directrice de Recherche Classe Exceptionnelle – CNRS

 What inspired you to get into the field of catalysis?

I started to be fascinated by chemistry when I realized that chemical transformation could be related to the electronic properties of atoms. I had taken chemical physics as major at the University of Paris-Sud at Orsay. As usual, the professors are the real catalysts. Lionel Salem, a highly distinguished theoretical chemist, taught the class of quantum chemistry. I enjoyed the topic without yet understanding what it could be good for.

The answer came from the class on organic chemistry by Nguyen Trong Anh, who started his class with the recently discovered Woodward-Hoffmann rules. It was 1969, and the symmetry rules were published in 1966. I love visual representations and understanding chemical transformations by drawing molecules and orbitals whose energy I could guess from chemical intuition and very simple calculations was a permanent wonder. Chemical transformations were so logical. It was really fun.

Time went on, and I moved from organic to organometallic chemistry following a post-doctoral stay with Roald Hoffmann. I remained mostly interested in molecular chemistry, but my interest in chemical transformations rapidly expanded to include homogeneous catalytic transformations. From the start to the present time (I am now emeritus), I worked in close collaboration with experimental chemists, and I was so lucky to maintain long term collaborations with most of them. My main goal was to develop an in-depth understanding articulated in terms of the chemical language of molecular reactions while using the state-of-the-art computational methods available at the given time and paying considerable attention to the models used for representing chemical systems.

The topics were numerous. For my Ph.D. with Nguyen Trong Anh, I put a naked hydride at a fixed distance from a carbonyl bearing a chiral carbon, everything being in the gas phase, and this became the Felkin-Anh model for asymmetric induction.

Today, with a colleague for University of Oslo, M. Cascella, we unveiled the mechanism of the Grignard reaction in THF solvent by ab initio molecular dynamics. Reactivity of organometallic species was really challenging with early calculations but it was possible to analyze unusual structural features notably involving H2 as a ligand (collaborations with B. Chaudret and with K. G. Caulton).

Later results with DFT could be compared and enrich experiments. With Bob Crabtree, diverse reactions and interactions involving interacting hydrogen atoms were explored.

With C. Copéret (ETH Zürich), we obtained results on the reaction pathways of olefin metathesis with Schrock catalysts, which improve their use for the synthesis of fine chemicals.

With L. Maron (Toulouse), L. Perrin (Lyon) and R. A. Andersen (UC Berkeley), the reactivity of organolanthanide complexes was better understood.

With E. Clot (Montpellier) and R. N. Perutz (York) calculations helped to understand why the strongest C-H bond can be cleaved by transition-metal complexes.

With C. Raynaud (Montpellier), R. A. Andersen, and Copéret, the anisotropy of the NMR 13C chemical shift in organometallic complexes and catalysts was related to their electronic structures and their reactivity.

It was really fun to contribute over many years to a better understanding of chemical reactions and catalysis with in-silico studies.

What do you hope to see from women in science in the next 20 years?

As the single daughter of a single mother originating from a Jewish family from Vilno (now in Lithuania), I never questioned my future. I had to work. I was good at school, very bad at any physical activities but fascinated by books describing adventures. With Jules Verne, I discovered the world and I dreamed of being one of his characters. In real life, I went through girl-only state schools from elementary to high schools. Such was the time.  My mother’s motto was simple: study, study and have high expectations. No one really stopped me, and if I had met someone who doubted that I could not do something because I was a girl, I do not remember. Probably, I just ignored such persons.  I kept this attitude for my entire professional carrier.

This was certainly beneficial but as I grew older, I realized that the situation was more complex and that there were really invisible obstacles for many women to enter scientific carriers and to climb to the highest positions. The problem has been well studied, and the many factors that contribute to keeping them away from this domain of activity or at the lower levels are known. There is now a real effort spent at removing these obstacles. One sees the progress in the academic domain, which is the one I am addressing at the present time. Many meetings have a higher proportion of female speakers, and one should applaud this evolution. More needs to be done and any effort by the community to give increased opportunities for women to become more visible should be strongly encouraged. As women scientists will become more visible, their excellence will be more apparent; they will naturally be hired and promoted to higher positions. I read with great interest the article on “meet these amazing women in chemistry.” Yes, action of this type is essential at the present time.

Luckily related actions are now numerous through meetings, web sites, social networks, etc.  Mentoring is obviously essential, and I am proud that most of the female Ph.D. students or post-doc fellows in my group have now academic or related positions. Hopefully, these specific actions to promote females in science should become obsolete in a number of years, Will that be 5, 10, 20 years or even more?  Who knows? The goal will be reached when there will be no need to talk about women in science.

Eranda Nikolla
Associate Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, Wayne State University

What inspired you to get into the field of catalysis?

I entered the field of Catalysis because I wanted to change the energy landscape toward renewable energy sources and efficient energy conversion systems. While going through my undergraduate studies in Michigan, it became clear that advancements in scientific research were required to develop energy-efficient conversion systems to minimize pollution from internal combustion engines in automobiles. I spent my Ph.D. years at the University of Michigan, developing robust heterogenous catalysts for fuel cells as potential alternatives to thermal combustion systems.

What do you hope to see from women in science in the next 20 years?

I hope that women in science continue their exceptional scientific contributions and discoveries, which are the key to moving science forward in the next 20 years. I also hope that the scientific community acknowledges and awards the accomplishments of women in science fairly, in order to promote the inclusion and retention of women in science, essential members of our scientific community.

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