Esther Conwell, PhD’48

At a time when science was a man’s field, physicist and chemist Conwell conducted research that won her a 2010 National Medal of Science.


By Ruth E. Kott, AM’07
Photography by Shawn Brackbill

Esther Conwell, PhDí48, didnít hold a university research job until late in her career, joining the University of Rochesterís chemistry and physics departments in 1990. "I never seriously applied for a good university job because I figured," as a woman in science, "they wouldnít consider me," she says. Instead she did research for companies such as GTE and Xerox Corporations, in an environment she found more welcoming. "It was just between me and the research, how well I did, and how well I felt about myself," says Conwell, an expert in how electrons travel through semiconductors and through DNA.

Conwell has since moved past the prejudice. In November she received the 2010 National Medal of Science—nominated by friend and colleague Mildred Dresselhaus, PhDí59, a physicist and electrical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Conwellís research, including the Conwell-Weisskopf theory proposed with her University of Rochester masterís thesis adviser, has led to a better understanding of the inner workings of transistors and helped spark the computer revolution. Her recent research on charges moving through DNA has contributed to understanding potentially cancer-causing mutations.

Biology dreams: I would still like to be a biologist at this stage—not when I was first looking for a job. There wasnít any serious biology then. ... DNA had been discovered, for instance, but there were not many people who understood anything about it or who were working on it in those days. I had never heard of it.

Teaching strengths: [As a teaching assistant in my early days at Chicago], I was responsible for all of the lectures and for the lecture demonstrations, which were really a trial for me. For some of them, physical strength actually was required. I remember a particular experiment—maybe it was conservation of momentum that was being demonstrated—and you had to separate two little cars and then release them and let them bang into each other. I [practically] wasnít strong enough to separate these cars, and the boys in the class thought that was so funny. They really laughed. ... You just had to grin and bear it.

Industry matters: It was better for women in industry [than in academics]. If you got into a good place, they were more fair in their treatment of women. There were these interviews with women from MIT, for instance, who had made it into assistant professorships or more, and they still felt discriminated against and not treated as well as their fellows—the men working alongside them.

Why she won the National Medal of Science: I think it was for a whole body of work. And probably it stood me in good stead that the subject of my research [on transport theory in semiconductors and organic conductors] had changed once I left Xerox. I started working on DNA, ... and I think it helped that my research had gone over a wide range.

Presidential guest: The ceremony was at the White House, which is an impressive place. I had been there as a tourist many years before, but I hadnít seen it that way as I did that day. We didnít really get to talk to Obama much, but each of us took a picture with him—just him and one of us. So that gave me a moment to talk to him, and I told him I had voted for him.

Shedding light on cancer: Shining sunlight on a piece of DNA can cause a distortion of the chains in the DNA, a particular distortion in which different parts of the same chain—a chemist would say "dimerized," that two parts come together in a different way than they would if the sun hadnít been on them. And this is a defect. ... If a lot of these defects are created by the sun, it could lead to cancer. So itís of considerable interest how you would get rid of them. Well, it turns out that the body can [get rid of the defects], and itís been duplicated in experiments, by having an electron move up to a place where the dimerization has occurred. And when the electron comes, [the mutation] gets undone, and the DNA becomes its usual, normal self without defects.

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