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December 03, 2014

In Memoriam

Esther Conwell, pioneering professor of chemistry

President Obama shaking an older woman's hand
President Barack Obama presented the National Medal of Science to Esther Conwell in 2010.

by Peter Iglinski

Esther Conwell, research professor of chemistry and recipient of a National Medal of Science, died in a motor vehicle accident Nov. 16 at the age of 92.

A pioneer in the field of semiconductor research that ultimately revolutionized modern computers, Conwell was recognized as one of Discover magazine’s Top 50 Women of Science in 2002 and awarded the National Medal of Science by President Barack Obama in 2010. Her expertise earned her the rare honor of memberships in both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

“Esther Conwell’s death is a tragic loss for the world of science as well as for the University community,” says President Joel Seligman. “Professor Conwell’s many scientific contributions and her pioneering role as a leading woman in science made her a source of pride for our entire University of Rochester community. She was a deeply inspiring scientist for young women pursuing careers in science. Our thoughts are with her family and colleagues during this very difficult time.”

“In addition to her own outstanding research contributions, Esther, over her career, mentored many postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students,” says Todd Krauss, chair of the Department of Chemistry. “More broadly, she has served as an inspiration to women scientists around the globe. She will be greatly missed.”

In an interview with Rochester Review in 2003, Conwell said, “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.”

Conwell’s academic and professional careers began at a time when women were rarely seen in science classrooms and laboratories. Early in her career, Conwell was hired as an assistant engineer at Western Electric. Shortly afterward, she was notified that no such classification existed—for women. So she became instead an engineer’s assistant, a reassignment that significantly lowered her pay.

Conwell’s journey started at Rochester as a master’s student in physics in 1942. She completed her master’s thesis under the supervision of Victor Weisskopf. Together, they formulated the Conwell-Weisskopf theory that led to a better understanding of how materials affect the flow of electrons inside transistors and integrated circuits. Initially kept under lock and key as part of the war effort, the work was declassified and published in 1950.

“Esther’s 70-year-long career has greatly contributed to the technological revolution,” says Robert Boeckman Jr., a former chair of the Department of Chemistry. “Her theoretical models contributed greatly to our understanding of electron transport and charge redistribution in solids, which directly led to the practical devices we use every day.”

After teaching at Brooklyn College, her undergraduate alma mater, and earning her doctorate degree from University of Chicago under the Nobel laureate Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, Conwell spent most of her life in industry. She worked as an industrial scientist for 47 years at Bell Telephone Laboratories, GTE Laboratories, and Xerox Corporation.

Conwell joined the University as an adjunct professor in 1990 and then as full-time professor in the Department of Chemistry after her retirement from Xerox in 1998. She worked on the movement of electrons through DNA, publishing prolifically, and mentoring undergraduate students. She was awarded the Dreyfus Senior Faculty Mentor Award in 2004.

Conwell was married to novelist Abraham Rothberg. She is survived by her son and fellow scientist, Lewis Rothberg, professor of chemistry at Rochester, and two grandchildren.

Richard Hyde, mentor, founding chief of pulmonology

By Leslie White

Richard Hyde
Richard Hyde

Those who worked closely with Richard Hyde describe him as a brilliant physician who had a knack for guiding, challenging, and encouraging young doctors as they develop mastery of the art and science of medicine.

“He was a wonderful physician and a great mentor and teacher who truly embraced the missions of the institution in every way,” says Patricia Sime, chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine and associate chair for research in the Department of Medicine. “He leaves a tremendous legacy with his decades of mentorship for physicians who are now caring for patients around the world.”

Hyde died Oct. 30 at age 85. He continued to mentor young doctors until his recent retirement due to the onset of Parkinson’s disease.

“I had the unique privilege of working with Dr. Hyde for more than 25 years at URMC.  He brought outstanding clinical and scientific skills to this institution,” says Paul Levy, chair of the Department of Medicine. “What I admired most about Dick was his humble demeanor and insatiable curiosity. Even as he was nearing retirement, he remained fascinated by scientific problems and eager to jump into discussions on difficult clinical issues.  I will dearly miss his down-to-earth attitude and insightful perspectives that he so willingly shared with us. We’ve lost a true gentleman and scholar.”

Hyde was a “great example of how a physician can be both a great investigator and great clinician. His research was tied to his clinical interest. He was a translational researcher before we called it translational research,” says Anthony Pietropoali associate professor of pulmonary and critical care and the last fellow Hyde mentored in the early 1990s.

“He took me under his wing and showed me his passion for making new discoveries and developing new methods that he got me hooked,” Pietropaoli says.

Hyde’s research provided the foundation for a common pulmonary function test known as the carbon monoxide diffusing capacity to evaluate patients with pulmonary symptoms and disease. Most recently he fathered the theory and method for measuring the production and diffusion of nitric oxide gas in the lungs, which earned Hyde further international recognition and affirmed his place alongside his former mentors as pioneers in respiratory medicine.

Hyde joined the School of Medicine and Dentistry in 1969. He established and served as medical director of the Respiratory Therapy Department, which is now known as the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care. Hyde also served as medical director of the Pulmonary Function Laboratory and oversaw tuberculosis care.

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