Vicki Grassian: A Pioneering Role Model for Women Scientists

Vicki Grassian

It isn’t every day a mid-career scientist is given a symposium in her honor at the annual meeting of the largest scientific society in the world. Yet that distinction belongs to the College’s own Vicki H. Grassian, F. Wendell Miller Professor of Chemistry.

Grassian—who also holds appointments in the Colleges of Engineering and Public Health and is co-director of the UI’s Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Institute—has received the prestigious American Chemical Society (ACS) Award for Creative Advances in Environmental Science and Technology in recognition of her contributions to the field.

Grassian’s research, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health, seeks to understand the chemistry and impact of mineral dust aerosols caused by windblown soils on both the global atmosphere and human health. “The joke is that I’m the dust queen,” she laughs.

The all-day ACS Awards Symposium in Honor of Vicki H. Grassian took place at the National Meeting of the ACS in April 2012, featuring lectures by Grassian and her colleagues, or, as she puts it, by “those who have influenced me, and those whose careers I’ve influenced.”  Former students and postdoctoral associates Hind Al-Abadleh, David Cwiertny, Paula Hudson, and Gonghu Li organized the symposium on behalf of their mentor.

Grassian’s well-earned honor, however, calls attention to a troubling statistic: this year, she is one of only three female recipients of the ACS’s 52 technical and scientific awards. The trend is discipline-wide. Even as female scientists grow in number, they continue to be nominated disproportionately for teaching and service awards as opposed to scientific ones. This is a critical problem, says Grassian: “We shouldn’t only be defined as teachers or effective at service; we should also be defined as scientists.”

During her undergraduate study, Grassian was one of four female chemistry majors in a department with no women faculty members. When she began teaching at the UI in 1990, she was the first woman ever hired as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, and its first female faculty member to progress through the ranks of promotion. Today, women make up half of the students in the Department’s general chemistry courses, and over a quarter of its faculty. What’s more, says Grassian, “Our female faculty provide a range of strong role models: we have women professors who are married with children, we have some who are married with no children, and others who are single. That’s exactly what female students need to see—that there a lot of choices.”

The visibility of accomplished scientists like Grassian—who counts among her accolades a CLAS Faculty Scholar Award, a UI Distinguished Achievement Award, the James Van Allen Natural Science Faculty Fellowship, a Regents Award for Faculty Excellence, a Graduate College Outstanding Mentor Award, and a National Science Foundation Creativity Award—has doubtless inspired many aspiring female scientists. And certainly the high-profile Award Symposium in Honor of Vicki H. Grassian, held at a conference attended by approximately 10,000 chemists, will go a long way toward seeing that they’re likewise recognized for their scientific achievements.

Jenna Hammerich
CLAS Strategic Communications