Woo! We’ve made it!
For the twelfth and final science woman we have Stephanie Kwolek (1923-2014), an American chemist. Stephanie’s work, while primarily chemistry, is actual notable in the field of invention.
As a child, she would not have expected to have ended up where she did. Her aspirations were more aligned with sewing and fashion design. Her mother worried that her desire for perfection would keep her from fully enjoying work in the fashion industry and encouraged her to investigate other fields.
By the time she had graduated from college, she had cultivated a love for science and completed a degree in chemistry aiming to pursue a career in medicine. Just out of school, she was unable to secure loans to help her through medical school to become a doctor so she put it on hold while taking up a position at DuPont as a chemist.
Her intention was to use this job as an opportunity to save for medical school, however she quickly became much more invested in the interesting work she was doing at DuPont – using chemicals to create more futuristic fabrics. The work promised to be more rewarding and engaging, with the added benefit of connecting to her early interests.
At DuPont, Stephanie began work on a new material – a replacement for steel reinforcement in tires, but stronger and lighter. She took a chance and went to work creating a liquid polymer. This goopy, foggy liquid looked more like it should be thrown in the trash, rather than be used to make a super strong fabric. However when she spun the polymer into a thread, she found that the resulting material was some of the lightest and strongest material ever made in the lab. Stephanie had invented Kevlar.
Kevlar is used in everything from oven gloves to space suits, and it is a key part of the protection provided by bullet proof vests. The new technique involving these liquid polymers even launched a new area of research. She was awarded DuPont’s Lavoisier Medal, and as of this year, she’s still the only woman in the company to have achieved this award.
Going into the new year, and finishing off this series of fantastic women in science, Stephanie is a great reminder to try something new, you may never know where it will lead you. Where would the field of synthetic material be if she had committed to fashion design? Or if she had steadfastly worked towards her medical degree? Rather than blindly charging down a chosen path, Stephanie had the ability to look around and consider all options available to her. She wasn’t afraid to alter her course. I think everyone can stand to be reminded to look around, and to be encouraged to go down a new path if the one you’re on isn’t working for you.
Thank you for following along this year as we learned about so many wonderful women. These women were self-driven, courageous, and assertive. They understood that they had so much to contribute and worked to empower more women to contribute as they did. We can all use role models like them in our lives.
Happy New Year!