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The Women Written Out of Nuclear Science via Portside (Lady Science)

Kit Chapman

Their stories are not just an important reminder of the difficulties faced by women in science; they are illustrations of how prejudices and bias can force talented individuals out of research to the detriment of us all.

In 1969, Margaret Fuchs, an unassuming housewife and mom of three living in California, received a letter from the White House. It was a message from Glenn Seaborg, the Nobel-prize winning chair of the Atomic Energy Commission and personal adviser to President Nixon. The most famous chemist in the U.S. at the time, Seaborg was considered the world’s foremost authority in nuclear science. He had a question for Fuchs about caesium-137, a crucial radioisotope and a key marker for nuclear contamination around the world.

Fuchs read the message and sent her response. Her children were astonished. “My kids will never get over the thought that Glenn Seaborg had to ask anybody anything about radioisotopes,” she added as a postscript in her letter, “least of all their mother!”

Unbeknownst to her children, Fuchs had lived a previous life. She had not just studied caesium-137—she had discovered it.

Decades earlier, Fuchs had been present at the dawn of a new area of science: nuclear chemistry and physics. And yet with barely 80 years of history, focused in only a handful of countries, this modern area of research has still seen women working in the field face prejudice, exclusion, and harassment. The intense secrecy and security of the world of nuclear science has been used to minimize or overlook the work of its women scientists. Many women working in nuclear science have gone uncredited or under-credited for their work. And some were not allowed to do science at all.

[…]

And yet biases persist.

The story of Clarice Phelps is one such example. A Tennessee native and U.S. Navy veteran, Phelps works at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s High Flux Isotope Reactor, in Knoxville, where she performs meticulous separations to isolate elements created in the reactor’s nuclear forge. In 2008, Phelps helped isolate and purify a small, 22mg sample of berkelium, element 97. This was then shipped to Russia, where Shaughnessy and her colleagues fired a calcium beam into it, creating the most recently discovered building block of our universe: tennessine, element 117.

And yet biases persist.

The story of Clarice Phelps is one such example. A Tennessee native and U.S. Navy veteran, Phelps works at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s High Flux Isotope Reactor, in Knoxville, where she performs meticulous separations to isolate elements created in the reactor’s nuclear forge. In 2008, Phelps helped isolate and purify a small, 22mg sample of berkelium, element 97. This was then shipped to Russia, where Shaughnessy and her colleagues fired a calcium beam into it, creating the most recently discovered building block of our universe: tennessine, element 117.

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