Changing the Chemical Makeup in the Lab

Monday, November 15, 2010 - 10:00

When Maria Gomez was a researcher in the theoretical division at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the late 1990s, she was a bit of a scientific curiosity.

“There were no women in the building that I was working in,” Gomez says. “Towards the end, there was a woman who was hired, and there was a rumor that a woman had been hired in another building as well, but I never saw her,” Gomez says, chuckling.

Today, the Mount Holyoke associate professor of chemistry is having the last laugh on the subject of women in science. She has been helping to inspire and educate a new generation of female undergraduates who are beginning to play prominent roles in laboratories around the world—including Los Alamos. In fact, she has two former lab assistants who are now working at the New Mexico facility. 

One of them is Saryu Fensin ‘06, who started doing research on fuel cells with Gomez in 2003 when she had just finished her first year at the College.

“I think that my experience that summer really made me want to pursue a career in science,” Saryu says. “Maria was a great mentor and helped prepare me for the ‘real world,’ before I graduated.”

For Saryu, who received her Ph.D. in materials engineering from the University of California-Davis in July, being a female scientist still presents a real-world challenge.

“It’s hard,” she admits. “I often get comments such as ‘You have an easier time getting a job because you are female.’ However, I think Maria prepared me really well for this scenario. She gave me some insight based on her own experiences, and she has always been my idol because she is a smart, successful woman in a male-dominated field.”

One of Gomez’s other former lab assistants, Katie Fletcher ’09, says she’s been surprised that all of her graduate school professors have been men.

“I never actually thought about the fact that I was entering a male-dominated field until I left Mount Holyoke,” she says.

She’s now earning her M.S. in chemistry at the Universität Hamburg in Germany, and plans on pursuing doctoral work in theoretical physical chemistry next year.

“Now, I’m glad that I had female role models like Maria at Mount Holyoke,” Fletcher says. “In class, she allows students plenty of room to explore their own interests, and as a research advisor, she is someone who expects a lot of independent learning and initiative from her students. She is very approachable, however, and works really hard for her students in return.”

Gomez describes it as meeting her students halfway.

“I want to present a problem to my research assistants in a way I think they’ll understand, and then they do reading on the topic to try to figure out new solutions,” she says. “I try to connect them with a particular project I think will suit their strengths. Picking a research student is challenging in that you want to balance excitement with aptitude, because in order for them to actually maintain enthusiasm, they have to have results.”

Cristina Ghenoiu ’04, now a Ph.D. candidate in molecular biology at Cornell, credits Gomez-- “the most amazing mentor I have ever had”--and the rest of the Mount Holyoke chemistry department with giving her the confidence to take on difficult scientific projects.

“They prepared me mentally to carry these projects to completion,” she says. “No matter where I undertook a project—I had internships and research positions at Harvard, the Mayo Clinic, NYU, Uniklinikum Freiburg, Cornell, and Rockefeller—I felt completely prepared and as well-trained as any of my colleagues.”

In August, some of the work done by Ghenoiu and her colleagues even made the pages of the prestigious journal Science. She was one of the primary authors on the article, which documented the group’s research on the role of histone proteins in cell division.

Gomez says she remembers Ghenoiu as a deep thinker who would dig into a topic rather than simply glance it over. It’s an in depth approach mirrored by many of her former students, like Mythili Chunduru ’10.

“My MHC chemistry experience shaped my attitude toward learning across all disciplines,” Chunduru says. “I am constantly asking or wondering about the ‘why,’ and this has made me a more critical thinker. I’m currently applying to pharmacy school with the hope of eventually working in a teaching hospital or academic setting of some kind.”

Similarly, Elena Puig ‘09 says she owes a lot to Gomez, even though she’s working as an emergency room technician rather than a chemist.

“I continually see connections between medicine and the chemistry that I learned at Mount Holyoke,” Puig says. “Maria helped me prepare for what I am currently doing by improving my work ethic, and giving me the tools I needed to survive past college. The work I accomplished with her is one of the proudest things I have done in my life.”

Gomez knows that many of her students, like Puig and Chunduru, won’t end up in a laboratory. But, for her, that’s not what really matters.

“My focus is to get them excited by connecting chemistry to other areas they may be more interested in, like biology or physics. I want them to understand that topics we cover in general chemistry are useful for research in a lot of areas,” she says.

Sometimes, the connection is so great that students like Caitlin Scott ’07 end up discovering a new academic direction.

“I wasn’t planning on being a chemistry major until I started classes at Mount Holyoke,” Scott says. “I really appreciated the undergraduate research opportunities and the availability of professors outside of class. I’m now entering my fourth year of graduate studies at the California Institute of Technology, where I’m a candidate for a doctoral degree in chemistry.”

Laura E. Fernandez ’08 says the research she did with Gomez on tritiated water and fuel cells has helped her understand her current work as a third-year graduate student at Penn State, where she is investigating proton coupled electron transfer (PCET).

“Many of the skills I learned with Maria have helped me through my classes at graduate school,” Fernandez says. “I really enjoyed my time at MHC, and the College’s chemistry department was especially amazing. It was my home away from home.”

Gomez is making sure she keeps her extended chemistry family together--online. Whenever one of her former lab assistants checks in to say hello, she adds their current information to her alumnae page. It’s an impressive list of women who are now working in some of the most rigorous graduate programs and prestigious laboratories in the world, from Lindiwe Ndebele '09, currently at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute; to Nga Nguyen '05, who received her Ph.D. in chemistry from Brown earlier this year; to Patricia Peart '05, now a senior chemist in core research and development at Dow Chemical.

“My former students’ success is very exciting for me,” Gomez says. “I went into academia because I didn’t see any women when I was at Los Alamos. Now, I can see progress in this area.”

And it doesn’t take a doctorate in chemistry to determine the catalyst behind it all.