Oral history interview with Cynthia J. Burrows

  • 2009-Jul-15 – 2009-Jul-16

Cynthia J. Burrows was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, one of two children. Her father was an electrical engineer in the aerospace industry, and her mother was a housewife. She liked school and was a good student; she had always known that she did not want to have one of the acceptable women's jobs, viz. teaching, nursing, or secretarial work. When she was in ninth grade the family moved to Boulder, Colorado, where later her high school chemistry class made beer that eventually exploded all over the classroom. That was her first clue that she wanted to be a chemist. She decided to attend the less expensive University of Colorado, but enjoyed moving five miles from home to live in a dorm. Burrows spent her junior year at the University of Edinburgh taking courses from Evelyn A. V. Ebsworth. In her senior year she entered Stanley Cristol's lab, working on Stern-Volmer plots. Next she spent four months as balloon technician on Ascension Island, returning to Cristol's lab for the remainder of the year. Burrows decided to enter Cornell University's PhD program, where she became intrigued by Barry Carpenter's class and by reaction mechanisms. For her thesis she made five molecules, which, at times, she found a frustrating experience. For a postdoc she went to the lab of Jean-Marie Lehn—who had given the Baker Lectures at Cornell—in Strasbourg, France. She acquired two grants and so was able to stay for two years. While in France she had the Chemical and Engineering News job section mailed to her, as there was no internet, to search for positions; she returned to the United States for interviews at several institutions. She received an offer from State University of New York at Stony Brook, but it was for a Scott Anderson; he received her letter. They were both hired, and eventually they married. During their stay at Stony Brook they had triplets, compounding the difficulties of being the first tenure-track woman in the chemistry department. Steven Rokita, her collaborator and friend, was especially helpful during that year. Though Burrows slowed down some at this time—even enduring bed rest—she did not stop; instead, her lab came to her. She was back in the lab shortly after the children's birth, and when they were seven weeks old she ran a National Science Foundation conference. Needing a bigger house anyway, Burrows and Anderson decided to make a more permanent move. They chose the University of Utah because Stony Brook's new president had a different focus for the school; because of economics; because the two had parents in the West; because they both liked outdoor activities; and because there was a cultural center in Salt Lake City. The only other woman in chemistry there had just left for medical school, so again Burrows was the only woman. One of her early priorities was to set up a maternity leave policy to encourage other women to come to and remain in the department. Nevertheless, she found the situation for women improving. Burrows discusses at length women in chemistry and the changes she has seen during her career. She talks about child care; the necessity of paternal involvement; the importance of "climate" for women; men's careers; tenure and family planning; support and mentoring from her friends and colleagues in COACh and more informal groups. She describes the couple's pre-children sabbatical in Okazaki, Japan, talking about some of the differences between science there and in the United States and about her friend, Mitzuhiko Shionoya. She talks about being mentored by John Osborn and mentoring her own students; and about how to interest more young women and men in science by teaching more science earlier. She ends by stressing the importance of collaboration, especially hers with Steven Rokita.

Access this interview

Available upon request are 1 PDF transcript and 4 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 — 458 KB
Burrows_CJ_0671_SUPPL.pdf