Changing the world with chemistry

These women use chemistry to make cutting-edge materials, new medicines and more
Sep 21, 2016 — 7:00 am EST
surge relief system

Meha Jha stands with a surge relief system she worked on in Singapore. This system is used to control flowing liquids such as oil. When the flow gets too high, the surge relief system stops it from causing damage.

M. Jha

Science News for Students asked women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to send us their pictures, videos and sound clips. We wanted to show our readers examples of women working in these fields. When we first asked, we thought we might get 10 or 20 responses, if we were lucky.

We were wonderfully wrong.

Anne Galyean
Anne Galyean loves chemistry so much she wears it on her skin.
Matthew DeLorme

We were surprised by a beautiful flood of pictures, videos and more! Women in STEM have sent in more than 150 submissions from around the world — from Alaska to Antarctica and everywhere in between. We used some of the photos in our feature on women in science. But we couldn’t bear to leave anyone out. There’s now a post for women whose science reaches for the stars, and another about those who love the study of life. Today, we’ve got scientists who use chemistry to learn more about our world — from the water we drink to the medicines we need.

Anne Galyean

To study how chemicals affect the environment, you have to be able to find them first. Galyean develops sensors to discover where chemicals are or aren’t present. She’s a scientist at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. Right now, she’s trying to develop sensors for biofilms that might cause disease.

Outside the lab, though, Galyean likes to go into the woods, where she races mountain bikes. Professionally. 

Stacey Gould
Stacey Gould stands inside a wastewater system in Alexandria, Va.
S. Gould

Stacey Gould

Where does your water go after it swirls down the drain? Ask Gould. She’s a chemical engineer who designs wastewater systems for the engineering consulting firm Atkins in Austin, Texas. She’s worked on many of the parts that help these systems get up and running. That has included designing the makeup of pipe systems, modeling systems that treat dirty water so it can be used again and coordinating with groups that can be affected by the development of these systems.

Before she got into water, Gould worked with semiconductors — solid substances that can carry electricity.

Meha Jha

Meha Jha
Meha Jha at a back-to-school event for kids.
M. Jha

Jha is putting her chemical engineering expertise to work on surge relief systems. She works for Emerson, a company headquartered in Missouri. When liquids — such as gasoline — move through large pipes, the flow can swell to a surge or slow to a trickle. When the flow swells, the pressure of the liquid increases. If it increases too much, it can burst the pipes it’s flowing through, which can get dangerous. Jha works on products to control such surges and keep them from getting out of hand. Her work takes her around the world. “In my first two years since graduating college, I have worked [and] lived in Singapore and traveled to 14 countries,” she says.

Jha likes to share her love of science with young girls. She’s passionate about GirlStart, a group that helps girls get interested in STEM. She’s spoken at events, organized visits to her place of work and helped build paper rockets with young engineers.

Emma Karey
Emma Karey poses with a giant panda statue in Redwoods National Park in California.
Leah Towns

Emma Karey

If you’ve ever coughed through a cloud of cigarette smoke, you’ve been close to Karey’s research. She’s a graduate student at the University of California, Davis. “I study how environmental pollutants, like cigarette smoke and the vapors from electronic cigarettes, affect heart health using mice and rats,” she says.

Outside the lab, Karey’s one true love is Beyoncé. “To say I love Beyoncé would be an understatement,” she says. “I’ve seen her in concert 12 times in nine cities across states on both [U.S.] coasts, with two more shows coming up before the year is out! To me, she epitomizes the success that only comes after years of hard work, dedication and creativity. It’s the kind of focus I have already put into my nine years of research.”


Candace Lynch
Candace Lynch, pregnant with her third daughter, stands in front of her crystal growing equipment.
C. Lynch

Candace Lynch

Many of us have made crystals from sugar and water. They might be tasty, but they aren’t nearly as useful as the crystals Lynch makes. She is a crystal scientist at Inrad Optics in Northvale, N.J. “As a child, I collected rocks and minerals,” she says. She never dreamed that she would find a career in growing crystals. But that’s what she does now.

“One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is learning about cutting-edge uses for the materials produced in our lab,” she says. “For one project, we grew crystals needed by the Air Force for a laser to defeat heat-seeking missiles. For that work, I was given the highest award presented by the United States Air Force to a scientist or engineer. And I was the first female recipient since the inception of the award in 1969!” Now, she works on another kind of crystal — one that glows when radioactive material is around.



Rebecca McCloud
Rebecca McCloud hangs out — upside down.
arah Etheramer

Rebecca McCloud

Chemists don’t just work with chemicals that already exist, they also make new ones. McCloud is looking forward to making all sorts of new chemicals. She’s a graduate student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “I'm looking into synthesizing new drug molecules that can be used to treat people with diseases such as cancer,” she explains.

In her free time, McCloud likes to perform with silks, doing performances hanging in the air. “I love to hang upside down,” she says. “Sometimes you just need to view the world at a different angle!”

Rebecca Sanders-Demott
Rebecca Sanders-Demott takes a soil sample.
Laura Sofen

Rebecca Sanders-Demott

Chemicals are constantly moving all around us. Plants, bacteria, fungi and animals all use chemicals for food and to communicate. Sanders-Demott studies these chemical conversations. She is a graduate student in forest biogeochemistry at Boston University in Massachusetts. “I study how the biological parts of the forest (like trees, fungi and soil bacteria) interact with the geological parts (rocks, soil minerals, water),” she says. This will help her learn how important chemical elements are transformed and move into and out of the ecosystem.

Sanders-Demott didn’t always want to be a scientist, though, she says. “I’d planned to be a ballet dancer.”

Teresa Swanson takes a selfie.
Teresa Swanson takes a selfie.
T. Swanson

Teresa Swanson

Many people take medications to protect their hearts, but very few know how those medicines work. Swanson is figuring that out. She’s a graduate student in pharmacology — the study of how medicines interact with the body — at the University of Washington in Seattle. She takes images of medicines as they bind to tiny molecules in the heart. Her pictures are made with a technique called X-ray crystallography. They can show how the atoms in each molecule bind together.

Swanson won’t be in the lab forever, though. “I can't wait to get into the communication side of science,” she says. “I enjoy experiencing new things and meeting new people. I'm also a bit of a Netflix addict... but aren't we all?”

Eden Tanner
Eden Tanner in the lab. Always wear eye protection!
E. Tanner

Eden Tanner

Tanner is electric! Or at least, her work is. She is a graduate student at the University of Oxford in England. She studies liquids and particles in a field called electrochemistry. That is the study of chemical reactions that create an electric current.  

If you love the lab and you know it, why not sing? “I'm known in the lab for my frequent impromptu vocal performances,” Tanner says. “Especially featuring Tegan and Sara or Mary Lambert.”

Raquel Sofia Cordeiro, Elisa Liardo, Laura Leemans Martín, Lisa Marx, Federica Ruggieri, Olha Sviatenko and Aline Telzerow

These scientists are all part of Biocascades — a project bringing young researchers together from across Europe. They all study pharmacology and are working to find ways to make medicines cheaper and easier to produce.

Cordeiro (fourth from right) studies enzymes — molecules that help chemical reactions take place. She currently works in Germany at Ruhr University Bochum, but she’s originally from Lisboa in Portugal. “Besides science, I also like fashion, basketball and travelling,” she says. “In fact, travelling is the hobby that I like most. I want to go around Asia when I finish [my] PhD”

Liardo (second from right) works at the University of Oviedo in Asturias, Spain, but originally, she’s from Italy. When she was a baby, she used to be so small, she says “I used to ride my dog, saying ‘run, little pony, run!’”

F Busch
The scientists of Biocascades balance work and life.
F Busch

Leemans Martín (far right) is at Braunschweig University of Technology in Germany. She’s working to develop drugs to fight viruses. She’s fascinated by how the body works, including her own. “I have a funny nervous connection between the back of my neck and my hip,” she says. It “sometimes causes me tickles on the hip when I use a hairdryer.”

Marx (second from left) is getting a degree in biotechnology at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. When she wrote us, she was having a lucky day — she had just gotten a free transport pass for Berlin in Germany.

Ruggieri (third from right) didn’t start out studying science. She began by studying languages. But now she works at SARomics Biostructures. She says she may not be good at most sports, but, boy, can she jump. “I even won a fake golden medal in a neighborhood competition [for long jump] when I was twelve,” she says. She jumped farther than a 23-year-old, 185-centimeter- (6-foot-) tall guy.

Sviatenko (third from left) is originally from the Ukraine, but now she is in graduate school at the University of Griefswald in Germany. “I like travelling and painting,” she says. “One day I would like to become an excellent scientist and painter. To my mind, it is better to set big goals.”

Telzerow (far left) is studying biotechnology at the Graz University of Technology in Austria. Science is the only constant thing in her life, she says. “I moved around in Germany — studied here and worked there — and [then] I went on to the Netherlands and Australia,” she says.

She likes best to do her traveling on foot. “I love long-distance hikes,” she says. Her favorites have been the Great Ocean Walk in Australia and the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

If you enjoyed this series, check out our post on women in astronomy and our second post on women in biology! And make sure to keep an eye out as we show off women doing medicine, math, geology and more.

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Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

Antarctica     A continent mostly covered in ice, which sits in the southernmost part of the world.

astronomy     The area of science that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe. People who work in this field are called astronomers .

atom     The basic unit of a chemical element. Atoms are made up of a dense nucleus that contains positively charged protons and neutrally charged neutrons. The nucleus is orbited by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.

biofilm     A gooey community of different types of microbes that essentially glues itself to some solid surface. Living in a biofilm is one way microbes protect themselves from stressful agents (such as poisons) in their environment.

biogeochemistry     A term that covers processes that cycle (or eventually deposit) pure elements or chemical compounds (including minerals) between living species and nonliving parts (such as rock or soil or water) within an ecosystem. A scientist who works in this field is a biogeochemist.

biology     The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

cancer     Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (become bonded together) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O. Chemical can also be an adjective that describes properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

chemical engineer     A researcher who uses chemistry to solve problems related to the production of food, fuel, medicines and many other products.

chemical reaction     A process that involves the rearrangement of the molecules or structure of a substance, as opposed to a change in physical form (as from a solid to a gas).

chemistry     The field of science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and how they interact with one another. Chemists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances or to design and create new and useful substances. (about compounds) The term is used to refer to the recipe of a compound, the way it’s produced or some of its properties.

crystal     (adj. crystalline ) A solid consisting of a symmetrical, ordered, three-dimensional arrangement of atoms or molecules. It’s the organized structure taken by most minerals. Apatite, for example, forms six-sided crystals. The mineral crystals that make up rock are usually too small to be seen with the unaided eye.

crystallography     A field of science that studies crystals, especially their structure and composition.

current     A fluid body — such as of water or air — that moves in a recognizable direction. (in electricity) The flow of electricity or the amount of electricity moving through some point over a particular period of time.

ecosystem     A group of interacting living organisms — including microorganisms, plants and animals — and their physical environment within a particular climate. Examples include tropical reefs, rainforests, alpine meadows and polar tundra.

electric current     A flow of charge, called electricity, usually from the movement of negatively charged particles, called electrons.

electricity     A flow of charge, usually from the movement of negatively charged particles, called electrons.

engineer     A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

environment     The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create for that organism or process. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature, humidity and placement of components in some electronics system or product.

enzymes     Molecules made by living things to speed up chemical reactions.

force     Some outside influence that can change the motion of a body, hold bodies close to one another, or produce motion or stress in a stationary body.

geological     Adjective to describe things related to Earth’s physical structure and substance, its history and the processes that act on it. People who work in this field are known as geologists.

geology     The study of Earth’s physical structure and substance, its history and the processes that act on it. People who work in this field are known as geologists. Planetary geology is the science of studying the same things about other planets.

graduate school     A university program that offers advanced degrees, such as a Master’s or PhD degree. It’s called graduate school because it is started only after someone has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

graduate student     Someone working toward an advanced degree by taking classes and performing research. This work is done after the student has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

laser     A device that generates an intense beam of coherent light of a single color. Lasers are used in drilling and cutting, alignment and guidance, in data storage and in surgery.

liquid     A material that flows freely but keeps a constant volume, like water or oil.

mineral     The crystal-forming substances, such as quartz, apatite, or various carbonates, that make up rock. Most rocks contain several different minerals mish-mashed together. A mineral usually is solid and stable at room temperatures and has a specific formula, or recipe (with atoms occurring in certain proportions) and a specific crystalline structure (meaning that its atoms are organized in certain regular three-dimensional patterns). (in physiology) The same chemicals that are needed by the body to make and feed tissues to maintain health.

molecule     An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).

panda     (or giant panda) An endangered species in the bear family, found in the wild only in China. It has a distinctive white body with black coated limbs and dark spots around the eyes.

particle     A minute amount of something.

pH     A measure of a solution’s acidity. A pH of 7 is perfectly neutral. Acids have a pH lower than 7; the farther from 7, the stronger the acid. Alkaline solutions, called bases, have a pH higher than 7; again, the farther above 7, the stronger the base.

pharmacology     The study of how chemicals work in the body, often as a way to design new drugs to treat disease. People who work in this field are known as pharmacologists .

PhD     (also known as a doctorate) A type of advanced degree offered by universities — typically after five or six years of study — for work that creates new knowledge. People qualify to begin this type of graduate study only after having first completed a college degree (a program that typically takes four years of study).

pollutant     A substance that taints something — such as the air, water, our bodies or products. Some pollutants are chemicals, such as pesticides. Others may be radiation, including excess heat or light. Even weeds and other invasive species can be considered a type of biological pollution.

pressure     Force applied uniformly over a surface, measured as force per unit of area.

radioactive     An adjective that describes unstable elements, such as certain forms (isotopes) of uranium and plutonium. Such elements are said to be unstable because their nucleus sheds energy that is carried away by photons and/or and often one or more subatomic particles. This emission of energy is by a process known as radioactive decay.

semiconductor     A material that sometimes conducts electricity. Semiconductors are important parts of computer chips and certain new electronic technologies, such as light-emitting diodes.

sensor     A device that picks up information on physical or chemical conditions — such as temperature, barometric pressure, salinity, humidity, pH, light intensity or radiation — and stores or broadcasts that information. Scientists and engineers often rely on sensors to inform them of conditions that may change over time or that exist far from where a researcher can measure them directly. (in biology) The structure that an organism uses to sense attributes of its environment, such as heat, winds, chemicals, moisture, trauma or an attack by predators.

silk     A fine, strong, soft fiber spun by a range of animals, such as silkworms and many other caterpillars, weaver ants, caddis flies and — the real artists — spiders.

Singapore     An island nation located just off the tip of Malaysia in southeast Asia. Formerly an English colony, it became an independent nation in 1965. Its roughly 55 islands (the largest is Singapore) comprise some 687 square kilometers (265 square miles) of land, and are home to more than 5.3 million people.

smoke     Plumes of microscopic particles that float in the air. They can be comprised of anything very small. But the best known types are pollutants created by the incomplete burning of oil, wood and other carbon-based materials.

solid     Firm and stable in shape; not liquid or gaseous.

STEM     An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

wastewater     Any water that has been used for some purpose (such as cleaning) and no longer is clean or safe enough for use without some type of treatment. Examples include the water that goes down the kitchen sink or bathtub or water that has been used in manufacturing some product, such as a dyed fabric.

wood     A porous and fibrous structural tissue found in the stems and roots of trees, shrubs and other woody plants.

X-ray     A type of radiation analogous to gamma rays, but of somewhat lower energy.