University of Rochester

Top Female Chemist Receives $20,000 Dreyfus Foundation Award

February 24, 2005

The 2005 Camille and Henry Dreyfus Senior Scientist Mentor Award, designed to help emeritus faculty advise and mentor undergraduate students, has been won by Esther M. Conwell, professor emerita of chemistry and physics at the University of Rochester. Conwell received national attention in 2002 when she was named one of the top 50 most important women in science by Discover magazine 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.

“I cannot imagine of a better fit for the Dreyfus Senior Scientist Mentor Award than Esther,” says Robert Boeckman, Jr., chair of the Department of Chemistry. “Her extraordinary career accomplishments in an era when women in science faced extraordinary hurdles and challenges make her an ideal mentor and role model to young scientists and especially to young female scientists. She is amazingly active and vigorous and develops close mentoring relationships with her students.”

Conwell will use the $20,000 award to continue guiding undergraduate students who work with her on chemistry and physics research, specifically though a new university program aimed at encouraging students to receive a doctorate in both chemistry and physics. As a distinguished professor emerita, and a member of three U.S. National Academies, Conwell was an ideal mentor for undergraduate students in this new interdisciplinary area of chemical science, Boeckman says. In 2003, the Women in Science and Engineering program and the Department of Physics and Astronomy funded two undergraduate students to work on research with Conwell. The students wrote technical reports on their projects and gave talks at an Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Earning her master’s degree in physics at the University and her doctorate at the University of Chicago, Conwell taught at Brooklyn College, her undergraduate alma mater, from 1946 to 1951. 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.