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.

Access this interview

Available upon request are 1 PDF transcript and 6 audio recording files.

After submitting a brief form, you will receive immediate access to these files. If you have any questions about transcripts, recordings, or usage permissions, contact the Center for Oral History at oralhistory@sciencehistory.org.

PDF — 215 KB
nelson_dj_0482_SUPPL.pdf