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Oral history interview with Donna J. Nelson

  • 2008-Jul-21 – 2008-Jul-22

Oral history interview with Donna J. Nelson

  • 2008-Jul-21 – 2008-Jul-22

Donna J. Nelson's oral history begins with a discussion of her childhood in Eufaula, Oklahoma—a small town with Native American influences that grew into a much larger town throughout her youth. Heavily influenced by her parents, Nelson was a motivated student who wanted to work with and help people as her step-father, the town's only physician, had done. Nelson entered the University of Oklahoma with the intentions of pursuing medicine and possibly majoring in math. After joining the chemistry department, Nelson was immediately confronted with the contrasts between female and male students; she excelled in the coursework but needed to work harder in the laboratory to maintain parity with the male students (the male students, Nelson believed, were used to the manual dexterity of lab work from experience working on cars). After graduating, Nelson spent a brief time working on MINDO/3 calculations at Auburn University for Philip B. Shevlin and S. David Worley. There Nelson decided that, for graduate school, she only wanted to work with Michael J. S. Dewar at the University of Texas at Austin who developed the methodology. Near the end of her time in Austin, Dewar helped Nelson secure a post-doctoral position with Herbert C. Brown at Purdue University, where she became Brown's first female post-doctorate. Nelson described her work and other experiences under Brown, which included giving birth to her son Christopher and returning to lab the following week. After detailing her early experiences as the first tenure-track female faculty member of the University of Oklahoma chemistry department, Nelson moved on to explaining the importance of listening to women's experiences in order to help develop true parity in the scientific community. Throughout the interview Nelson referenced what she learned as a member of a Women in Science group at Purdue, and also what she learned by seeking advice from colleagues, that is, that “the best path to follow is a well-educated decision; no one can tell you what to do or what is best for you, but their experiences can help you to shape your own decisions." Nelson continued the interview by explaining how a 2000 C&E News article, prompted her to conduct a survey of women and minorities in the top chemistry departments. She described the initial survey work that led to further surveys of other disciplines whose departments were ranked by the National Science Foundation. Her survey work and research have been quoted in such varied places as Ms. Magazine and Harvard University's chemistry department Web site. Since the survey work, much of Nelson's time has been spent researching issues surrounding women and minorities in chemistry and the sciences and working with Marye Anne Fox at University of California, San Diego, as well as with SACNAS.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 67 pages
  • 3 h 47 m 12 s
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Rights holder
  • Science History Institute
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute

About the Interviewers

Hilary Domush was a Program Associate in the Center for Oral History at CHF from 2007–2015. Previously, she earned a BS in chemistry from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 2003.  She then completed an MS in chemistry and an MA in history of science both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her graduate work in the history of science focused on early nineteenth-century chemistry in the city of Edinburgh, while her work in the chemistry was in a total synthesis laboratory.  At CHF, she worked on projects such as the Pew Biomedical Scholars, Women in Chemistry, Atmospheric Science, and Catalysis.

Leah Webb-Halpern graduated from Smith College with a major in history and a minor in Latin American studies. Prior to joining the Chemical Heritage Foundation as an oral history program assistant, she was a research assistant at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Leah has moved on from the CHF and is currently a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Institutional location

Oral history number 0482

Related Items

Interviewee biographical information

  • December 31, 1969
  • Eufaula, Oklahoma, United States


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1974 University of Oklahoma BS Chemistry
1980 University of Texas at Austin PhD Chemistry (with Michael J. S. Dewar)

Professional Experience

Purdue University

  • 1980 to 1983 Post-Doctorate, Chemistry

University of Oklahoma

  • 1983 to 1990 Assistant Professor, Chemistry
  • 1989 to 1990 Provost's Faculty Administrative Fellow
  • 1990 to 2009 Associate Professor, Chemistry
  • 2005 to 2007 Assistant to ACS President Ann Nalley
  • 2008 Organic Division Chair, Chemistry
  • 2008 Development Officer, Chemistry

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  • 2003 to 2004 Visiting Professor
  • 2010 to 2011 Visiting Professor

Breaking Bad

  • 2008 to 2013 Science Advisor

American Chemical Society

  • 2016 to 2017 President


Year(s) Award
1977 to 1979 Robert A. Welch Predoctoral Fellow
1980 Robert A. Welch Postdoctoral Fellow
1984 University of Oklahoma Junior Faculty Research Fellow
1985 ACS Petroleum Research Foundation Type G Award
1985 Research Corporation Cottrell Scholar Award
1985 to 1986 Oklahoma University Associates' Distinguished Lecturer
1994 The Iotan Member Spotlight
1995 Oklahoma University Sooners Football Team Honorary Faculty Coach
1999 Alpha Phi Omega Leader of the 20th Century
2001 Capitol Hill Briefing
2003 Woman of Achievement, US Black Engineer and Information Technology Magazine
2003 to 2004 Ford Foundation Fellowship
2003 Guggenheim Award
2004 Capitol Hill Briefing
2004 Capitol Hill Press Conference Speaker
2004 Woman of Courage Award, National Organization for Women
2004 SACNAS National Conference Keynote Speaker
2004 to 2005 Outstanding Professor, Oklahoma Educator's Leadership Academy
2004 to 2005 50 Making a Difference, Oklahoma City's Journal Record
2005 Minority Health Professions Foundation Hall of Fame Inductee
2005 Twentieth Anniversary MIT Women's Studies Program Opening Speaker
2005 Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Sciences
2006 21 Leaders for the 21st Century, Women's eNews
2006 Research Featured on ACS Organic Division Calendar
2006 SACNAS Distinguished Scientist of the Year
2006 to 2009 NSF ADVANCE Leadership Award
2007 Fulbright Scholar
2008 Dow Chemical Company Advisory Board
2010 ACS Fellow
2011 ACS Nalley Award
2011 ACS Stan Israel Award
2012 ACS Oklahoma Chemist of the Year
2013 ACS Henry Hill Award (for professionalism)
2013 Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame
2016 Israel Chemical Society Fellow
2017 Fray International Sustainability Award at SIPS, FLOGEN Star Outreach
2018 "70 Most Inspirational Women Leaders Impacting the World,"
2019 Fellow, Royal Chemical Society
2020 Sigma Xi Fellow
2021 "These 12 Texas Women Made History," UT Austin
2021 Honorary Doctorate, University of Edinburgh
2022 Alpha Chi Sigma Hall of Fame

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The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

Complete Interview Audio File Web-quality download

6 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads