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Esther Conwell, pioneering professor of chemistry, dies at 92

November 17, 2014

Conwell Received the National Medal of Science in 2010

Esther Conwell shaking hands with President Obama.

Esther Conwell, professor of chemistry at the University of Rochester, receiving a National Medal of Science from President Obama in November 2010. (Photo courtesy of Ryan K. Morris Photography/National Science & Technology Medals Foundation.)>>Additional photos and video 



Esther M. Conwell, research professor of chemistry at the University of Rochester and recipient of the National Medal of Science, died in a motor vehicle accident Sunday 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,” said University 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,” said 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 afterwards, 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 was nominated for the National Medal of Science by Mildred Dresselhaus, professor of physics and electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—herself a National Medal of Science winner. “Dr. Esther Conwell has had an extraordinarily productive career as a scientist and has greatly influenced electronic device design and performance…” wrote Dresselhaus in her letter of nomination. “She has an outstanding track record and is still going strong.”

Conwell’s journey started at the University of 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,” said Robert K. Boeckman, Jr., a former chairman of the University’s 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 (1951-1952), GTE Laboratories (1952-1972), and Xerox Corporation (1972-1998).

Conwell joined the University of Rochester as an adjunct professor in 1990 and then a 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 many promising undergraduate students. She was awarded the Dreyfus Senior Faculty Mentor Award in 2004.

Conwell was married to the novelist, Abraham Rothberg. She is survived by her son and fellow scientist, Lewis J. Rothberg, professor of chemistry at the University of Rochester, daughter-in-law Shelby Nelson, and two grandchildren.

The University flag will be lowered Thursday, November 20th in memory of Esther Conwell.

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