University of Rochester

Discover Magazine Names Rochester's Esther Conwell one of "50 Most Important Women of Science"

October 24, 2002

Discover magazine has picked the top 50 female scientists of all time and Esther Conwell, professor of chemistry at the University of Rochester, is on the list. Conwell is best known for revealing how electronic signals flow through semiconductors, a technology that helped lead to the computer revolution. Her research, exploring how electric fields affect the movement of electrons in semiconductors, 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. Conwell is the only member of the University to hold this distinction.

The November issue of Discover points out that only 3 percent of scientists are women, but "If just one of these women had gotten fed up and quit-as many do--the history of science would have been impoverished." The article is devoted to highlighting women who changed the course of science with their research.

Conwell worked on her graduate research at the University under Victor Weisskopf, professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and contributed to the technological revolution following World War II by providing an understanding of the materials that made the transistor and integrated circuit possible. The Conwell-Weisskopf theory describes how "impurity ions"--which give off electrons to carry the electrical current-impede the flow of electrons. To Conwell's surprise, her thesis was considered to be part of the war effort and was promptly locked in a safe at the University. The research was later published in 1950.

Conwell currently studies the movement of electrons through DNA. "The motion of charge can lead to mutations that can be cancer producing," she says. "And the properties of DNA could be useful in assembling circuit elements in nano-electronic circuits."

"Esther Conwell is a truly legendary figure in science," said William Jones, chair of the chemistry department. "Her lifelong fascination with materials that shape the future has inspired our chemists and other scientists worldwide."

Conwell earned her master's degree in physics at the University of Rochester and her doctorate at the University of Chicago. From 1946 to 1951, she taught at Brooklyn College, her undergraduate alma mater. She also spent a year as a visiting professor at the University of Paris in 1962, and a semester at MIT in 1972 as the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor. The Society of Women Engineers recognized Conwell early in her career with its 1960 achievement award. In 1997, the Institute of Electrical Engineers presented Conwell with the prestigious Edison Award, making her the first woman to win this major medal. Previous Edison Award recipients include Alexander Graham Bell and George Westinghouse.