Plugged In

Jeannette Brown was the first African American to earn a graduate degree in Chemistry at the University of Minnesota

Wednesday, February 27, 2019
Posted by
Rachel Wong

The demand for a STEM-trained workforce continues to grow faster than any other industry. Informal learning experiences like those we provide at the Science Museum play a major role in influencing career choices of young people, yet barriers stubbornly persist - particularly for girls, people of color, and those historically left out of STEM.

In honor of Black History Month this February, the Science Museum wants to acknowledge the contributions that African Americans have made to the advancement of science over the centuries. People of color continue to face many challenges as they pursue STEM careers - from a lack of role models to inequities or discrimination in the workplace. At the Science Museum, we are actively working with schools and workplaces to help leaders develop inclusive strategies for learning in order to help girls and students of color see themselves as future scientists.  

Meet Jeannette E. Brown, the first African-American to earn a graduate degree in chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1958. As a child, Brown was inspired to go into the sciences by her family doctor. After completing her undergraduate education at Hunter College, Brown studied organic chemistry at the University of Minnesota and eventually held a successful career as a research chemist for over 35 years. Besides synthesizing compounds for drug development, she also contributed to numerous publications and co-owns five patents. Her research led Brown to become a faculty member at New Jersey Institute of Technology from 1993 to 2002.

Aside from her chemistry career, Brown dedicated much of her life to community outreach and diversity and inclusion. As one of the first black graduates in the natural sciences, Brown is actively involved in the community of minorities in science, and she has received numerous accolades for her work. Not only did she help improve the quality of science education at black universities, she also served two terms as a member of the National Science Foundation's Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities. In 2005, Brown received the National Award for Encouraging Disadvantaged Students into Careers in the Chemical Sciences from the American Chemical Society.

After noticing that many successful minority chemists had a supportive mentor behind them, Brown established the Freddie and Ada Brown Award in 2010 to inspire African American and Native American middle- and high school students to enter the sciences. In 2011, Brown published African American Women Chemists, a book that introduces readers to influential black female chemists. The following year, Brown participated in HistoryMakers, a large-scale oral history project sponsored by the National Science Foundation to preserve African-American history.

Far from stopping, 84 year-old Brown is currently working on a second edition of African American Women Chemists.

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