Marilyn Olmstead: My Life and Career in Chemistry

Picture of Marilyn OlmsteadMy career in chemistry probably begins with my life as a tomboy growing up in Burbank, California, where my parents allowed me to pursue my interests in cowboys, cartoons, rocks, insects, stamps, birds, and later, ham radio. I got my first microscope when I was 8, and obtained my general operator’s license in ham radio when I was 12. I still use microscopes, almost daily, and I still love instrumentation, just as I loved building cars, boats, and radio transmitters and antennas as a child. I think the thrill of contacting another “ham” with the use of Morse code in Japan or South Africa with only 50 watts of power is similar to the thrill of finally getting a Fortran program to compile (as I did in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin), and of being the first person to peer into the molecular structure of a newly solved crystal structure (as I have done at the University of California, Davis, since 1975). Several thousand crystal structures and 40 years later I am still impatient to get the solution of a crystal structure. Crystals have a repetitive motif for some reason. Since they diffract X-rays, we know that this motif exists. But why? Nature’s rules for the assembly of molecules and atoms fascinate me.

I look back with gratitude on my high school chemistry teacher, who passed away before I could tell him that I loved his class and had decided to major in chemistry at Reed College (B. A., 1965). Am also grateful to my college mentors, Professors Larry Sacks and Tom Dunne, and my Ph.D. advisor, Professor Dick Fenske. I majored in inorganic chemistry in graduate school, with a focus on molecular orbital theory (Ph.D. 1969). I was the only woman in a Ph.D. class of about forty. My interest in crystallography was sparked by my thesis committee member, Professor Larry Dahl, and I decided to follow that interest a few years after moving to UC Davis with my husband, Alan, in 1969. My husband was appointed assistant professor in the Department of Economics, and I was hired to supervise freshman laboratories in the Department of Chemistry. That same year I was promoted to Lecturer, and taught freshman chemistry for the next 6 years while doing postdoctoral work with several members of the Department and learning X-ray crystallography from Professor Håkon Hope along the way. Ultimately I was appointed to the academic staff to do crystal structure determinations and facility supervision on a Department-wide basis. In 2003, I was appointed Full Professor. Since then I have taught 9 different courses, and acted as an advisor to our Chemistry Club. My graduate students have never ceased to challenge and inspire me, and I am happy to see many of them continue in professional careers. At last count, more than 50 women have worked with me, as post-docs, graduate students, undergraduate students, and high school students. The number of women in science is no longer that surprising, but, looking back, “times have changed.”

– Marilyn Olmstead

Author: Kate Gibson

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