University of Rochester

Internationally Recognized Physicist Joins University Faculty

February 12, 1999

Distinguished physicist Esther Conwell has joined the University of Rochester's Department of Chemistry full time following a highly regarded career in industry studying how electronic signals flow through semiconductors, 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.

Her graduate research at the University under Victor Weisskopf, professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 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 electron transport in conducting polymers. These plastic-forming molecules are physically flexible, easy to produce, and emit a wide range of colors, increasing the capacity for information storage. Conducting polymers can be used instead of regular semiconductors or liquid crystals to make light-emitting diodes (LEDs), tiny devices that convert electricity to light that are found in digital displays, such as in watches, printers, and copiers.

Since 1990, Conwell has explored physics and chemistry problems as an adjunct professor and associate director at the University's Center for Photoinduced Charge Transfer. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the center encourages the type of interdisciplinary research Conwell enjoyed during her years in industry at Bell Laboratories, GTE Laboratories and Xerox Corp.

"Esther Conwell is a truly legendary figure in science," said James Farrar, chair of the chemistry department. "Her lifelong fascination with materials that shape the future has inspired our chemists and other scientists worldwide. We've benefited from her counsel over the last decade, and we are delighted that our faculty and students will continue to have opportunities to interact with her."

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.