Oral history interview with Marion C. Thurnauer

  • 2010-Apr-07 – 2010-Apr-08

Marion C. Thurnauer was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee and moved with her family to Minnesota when she was still young. Her father, a ceramic engineer, introduced her to rocks and minerals and encouraged her to follow her curiosity. Her maternal aunt, an astrophysicist, inspired her to look up at the stars and planets. Thurnauer credits her mother, who died when Marion was only fourteen, with supporting her interests in all things natural. Thurnauer attended the University of Chicago for her undergraduate and graduate degrees in chemistry, working with Gerhard Closs, her doctoral thesis advisor. She completed the final experiments for her thesis at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) because the required electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) spectrometer at the University of Chicago was severely damaged by a chemical explosion that occurred in the University's chemistry building. Working at ANL, she believes, was probably a factor for her to secure a postdoctoral position in the ANL Chemistry Division (CHM) with James R. Norris and Joseph J. Katz, studying, primarily by EPR spectroscopy, photochemical energy conversion in natural photosynthesis. She was promoted to Assistant Chemist, a staff position, and was, for a few years, the only female staff scientist in CHM and rose to become the first woman CHM Director. Along the way she established "Science Careers in Search of Women," a conference currently held annually for high school students. The second conference led to discussions between ANL leadership and a grass-roots group of female scientists. The outcome of these meetings was the formulation and launching of the ANL Women in Science and Technology (WIST) program. Thurnauer served a term (two years, 30% effort) as the WIST Program Initiator and for several years as a member of the WIST Steering Committee. When WIST was first established she believed that by now (more than twenty years later) WIST would have put itself out of business; but each generation has been faced with variations of the same issues of underrepresentation, promotion, bias, et cetera. According to Thurnauer, under sponsorship of the ANL Director's office, WIST continues to hold outreach activities and works to recruit, retain, and promote women at ANL in an effort to ensure equity for all staff and to diversify and strengthen the scientific workforce. As division director, Thurnauer once again was the only woman among her peers, i. e. , division directors and ANL leadership. She had to choose frequently among competing goals and priorities and she had to maintain CHM's shrinking core funding while working with scientists to secure additional funding. The latter was a new challenge, as historically CHM's budget was based primarily on core funding; and going after ‘outside funding' not only involved writing proposals but also finding the ‘DOE-Lab appropriate' funding sources. She analogizes the situation to her brief experience with skydiving. During her tenure as director, CHM was involved with the ANL Materials Science Division (MSD) both at the new Advanced Photon Source and with efforts to secure funding for ANL's Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM). Thurnauer felt that she was often defending chemistry (and CHM) with respect to materials science (and MSD). She worked to ensure that the initial proposals for the CNM included chemical sciences, in addition to materials sciences, in order to foster scientific excellence at the CNM. Nevertheless, in addition to all her administrative work, Thurnauer was able to continue to be involved with science mainly because her co-workers kept her informed and up to date on their results. As she reminisces, Thurnauer discusses the general state of women in science, but particularly at ANL. She stresses the importance of mentoring, reinforcing, and building networks for women; she talks about having her husband in her division; she explains e-mentoring and recommends it; and she names and describes the work of some of the women who have served as her role models. At the end of the interview, Thurnauer discusses how she finds some satisfaction with the increase in the number of women in the sciences while at the same time warning about reality versus mere perception, also noting the visible differences in same gender versus mixed gender interactions. Thurnauer concludes with the reminder that there is "joy [in] doing science," and that keeps women ‘going,' in spite of issues that are extraneous to science.

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