All Things Being Equal
“My life is the story of women scientists making a place in the world,” says chemistry professor Esther Conwell ’44 (Mas), whose pioneering work in semiconductors earned her a place as one of Discover magazine’s 50 most important women in the history of science. By Jenny Leonard
In 1950s America, juiced on postwar enthusiasm, physics was hot. The seemingly limitless science of motion and matter and energy had proven itself in the decade before, indelibly changing the world with the atomic bomb, radar, and the transistor.
But for all its breakthroughs and all its innovations, physics—coming of age centuries before when Galileo Galilei trained his telescope starward and Sir Isaac Newton pondered his windfall fruit—was, in one fundamental way, as antiquated as the science of its forefathers: It was a science significantly absent of women.
But in 1950, when only six women in the United States were awarded doctoral degrees in physics—less than 2 percent of the total degrees awarded —Esther Conwell ’44 (Mas), having already earned a Ph.D. in atomic physics from the University of Chicago two years earlier and coauthor of a landmark paper on semiconductors, was proving that women physicists were a force yet to be reckoned with.
And last fall, in honor of a career that has navigated new territories for science and for women, Discover magazine named Conwell, now professor of chemistry at the University, one of the 50 most important women in the entire history of science for her significant role in understanding how electrons move through silicon and other semiconductors—research that helped pave the way for the modern age of electronics.
“If just one of these women had gotten fed up and quit—as many do—the history of science would have been impoverished, ” the magazine noted.
The daughter of eastern European immigrants—her father, a portrait photographer, and her mother, a homemaker for a husband and three daughters—Conwell was born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn, a place she describes as a “frontier” in the 1930s. While not a science-minded teen, Conwell excelled in math and showed early an intrinsic love for order and discipline and challenge.
As an undergraduate at Brooklyn College (what is now part of the City University of New York), Conwell, who went to college uncertain of what she would study, discovered an affection for two rigorous endeavors: physics and dance.
“I began dancing in college, first modern dance and then ballet,” says Conwell, who at 80 still carries the posture and poise of a well-conditioned athlete. “I think the same things I love about ballet, I love about physics; They’re both exact and require discipline. That sense of order is what really attracted me to physics in college. And the fact that there was no lab work. I always hated lab work.
“I can remember the exact moment I became a physics major. I had registered for a chemistry course, qualitative analysis, and the instructor spent the first hour talking about lab technique while my interests were in new ideas and concepts. Everyone else in the class headed off to the laboratory, and I left. I didn’t even speak to the professor because I was afraid he’d try and talk me out of it. I went straight to the registrar and signed up for another physics course. That hour I became a physics major.”
When Conwell arrived in Rochester in 1942, ready to begin her doctoral work, the 20-year-old experienced what initially seemed like a devastating turn of events: The physics department was a ghost town.
The United States had joined the Allied forces of World War II, and physicists were needed like never before. One by one, Rochester faculty—men who would make names for themselves during the war and one day become icons of their fields—had packed their bags and headed to MIT’s Radiation Laboratory or to the government’s secret research center in Los Alamos to help develop such tide-turning technologies as radar and the atomic bomb.
Among the men who left was department chair Lee DuBridge, who took a leave of absence to direct MIT’s “Rad Lab,” overseeing the development of critical advances in radar and long-range navigation. DuBridge’s work proved so groundbreaking that after the war the California Institute of Technology offered him the presidential position, a post he occupied for more than 20 years.
Other faculty, such as Robert Marshak and Victor Weisskopf, left to play pivotal roles. Working at MIT as well as on the British and American atomic bomb projects, Marshak returned to Rochester after the war and led the physics department to national prominence in the 1950s.
Weisskopf—Conwell’s thesis advisor—chose not to return to Rochester after the war. Instead, the quantum mechanics theorist known as “the Los Alamos Oracle,” who died in April 2002 at the age of 93, would eventually direct CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, become an outspoken advocate for arms control, and retire as full professor from MIT.
“Shortly after I arrived in Rochester, just about all the faculty in the physics department left to support the war work,” says Conwell. “After I’d had a year here, it was pretty clear there wasn’t going to be enough research available for a Ph.D. I was very disappointed. But the department decided I should have something to show for a year of graduate work, so they came up with a master’s thesis problem.”
That project paired Conwell with Weisskopf, a man she describes as brilliant although a bit unapproachable.
“Professor Weisskopf had gone to Purdue University, where they were just starting to work on semiconductors,” Conwell says. “A team there had obtained some data that they didn’t know how to interpret on how resistance varied with temperature. Weisskopf came back with that as my thesis problem.
“He was around for a few months after that, and I was frantic to get something calculated to show him. So I worked hard and gave him my results the day before he left for Los Alamos.”
Known today as the Conwell-Weisskopf theory, those results are considered seminal in understanding the electrical properties of semiconductors. Classified by the government during the war and declassified by the end of the 1940s, the theory has become a cornerstone of semiconductor study.
The possibility of doing further graduate work propelled the young physicist to Chicago, where she worked on groundbreaking research in astrophysics under Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1983.
Regardless of credentials, Conwell found that academia was in many ways still an all-boys club in the early 1950s, especially in the sciences—and exceptionally so in physics.
“Having a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, any guy would figure on getting a nice professorship at a good university,” says Conwell. “But in physics in the early 1950s, there was no such thing for women, and no such thing for me.”
With few options available, Conwell took an untenured position at Brooklyn College, her alma mater, where she taught for four years, filling in for another physicist on leave. When the tenured professor returned and Conwell’s teaching position evaporated, she was given tenure and a year of leave. After the year, she decided to trade in the lecture hall for the industrial lab. It was there, in the booming landscape of electronics, that Conwell made her impact and there that she faced both the subtle and at times unabashed discrimination that, she says, was neither surprising nor illegal.
“Early in my career, I took a job at Western Electric as an assistant engineer,” she says. “Just weeks after I was hired, they called me into the office and informed me that there was no payroll classification for a woman in that position. The only ‘comparable’ position was that of engineer’s assistant, a position that, as one can imagine, significantly lowered my salary. Today, women would be outraged if they were treated that way, but at the time it was not so shocking; it was just how things were, how they had always been.”
In 1951, Conwell landed a job that would forever shape her life. At Bell Labs—the research arm of AT&T and the place where the transistor had been invented only years earlier—Conwell gained what she describes as “a real taste of research.” Working under Bill Shockley, the leader of the team that created the transistor, she delved full force into the world of semiconductors.
Along the way, Conwell made friends with a small group of women physicists, including Mildred Dresselhaus, now Institute Professor of Physics and Electrical Engineering at MIT and a fellow physicist also included in Discover magazine’s top 50 listing.
“Esther was right there at a very exciting time in semiconductor research,” says Dresselhaus. “Her work is the basis, the very fundamentals, of what we study today.”
In the early 1970s, Conwell made a career change that brought her to Xerox and to a city to which she had never thought she’d return: Rochester.
As principal scientist and manager of Xerox’s electro-optics program, Conwell studied optical fibers, the theory of wave guiding, organic metals, and conducting polymers, which are used to make the tiny devices that convert electricity to light found in digital displays of many devices such as cell phones and printers.
In 1998, at the end of a stellar career at Xerox, Conwell accepted a research position at the University in the chemistry department, where the octogenarian is as vital as ever both in her personal and professional life.
In addition to the four-times-a-week ballet classes she describes more as an addiction than a passion, Conwell forges into new ground, studying the movement of electrons through DNA.
“How these electrons move in DNA is important for many reasons,” she says. “In the body, the motion of the electrons can cause mutations that may lead to cancer.”
The work also may have implications in nanoelectronics, an area of science exploring ways to miniaturize electronics to the size of molecules and atoms.
“DNA has a special property that it can attract or bond with another piece of DNA, a complementary piece,” Conwell says. “Let’s say you want a wire to come together with a transistor. Imagine putting DNA on the wire and the complementary DNA on the transistor. You could think of assembling nanocircuits that way.”
Conwell’s work has earned her an uncommon dual membership in the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, two of the highest honors a scientist or engineer can receive. She’s also been recognized by the Institute of Electrical Engineers, which awarded Conwell the prestigious Edison Award, making her the first woman to win an honor whose past recipients include Alexander Graham Bell and George Westinghouse.
“Esther Conwell is a truly legendary figure in science,” says William Jones, chair of the chemistry department. “Her lifelong fascination with materials that shape the future has inspired our chemists and other scientists worldwide.”
To women colleagues such as Dresselhaus, the imprint Conwell has made on science extends beyond physics.
“Esther is a true role model for what it means to stay vital as a scientist and as a woman,” Dresselhaus says. “There is no denying that when Esther and I were first beginning, we faced many difficulties and obstacles as women scientists. But that climate is changing, and I’m proud of the role we’ve played.”
With an emotion akin to survivor’s guilt, Conwell, ever reticent in discussing her accomplishments, will admit that her career has helped blaze a path for the women who have followed and who will surely continue to follow.
In her office, an unadorned and utilitarian space designed solely for theoretical thought, Conwell pauses for just a moment to reflect on the bittersweetness of such singular success.
“You really have to feel empathy and sadness for the many women of my generation or before who didn’t get a proper chance to excel and pursue their dreams or get proper recognition for the work they accomplished,” she says. “My life is the story of women scientists making a place in the world. Although it’s not nirvana yet, women have come a long way in my working lifetime, and it gives me hope.”
Jenny Leonard is editor of Currents, Rochester’s faculty-staff newsletter.
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