150 years and counting: women join chemical engineering

John Prausnitz’s lab group in downtown Berkeley late 1970s. Ellen Pawlikowski is in the front row (center); Georgie Scheuerman is in the second row (left). Photo courtesy Georgie Scheuerman.

“I found that the College of Chemistry had a welcoming atmosphere. The faculty, staff and students all worked to make students feel respected. This doesn’t mean being a student at Berkeley was easy. But I was part of an academic community that valued and actively included all its members.” Georgie Scheuerman

The chemical engineering program (known today as Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering) was formed in 1947 at Berkeley, although it did not get a permanent home in the College of Chemistry until 1957.

Marie Lavering (née Johnson) was the first women to receive her chemical engineering B. S. in 1950. She went on to teach chemistry and physics in a Bay Area high school. During the early- to mid-1970s the proportion of women in the department grew substantially. By 1977, the undergraduate class contained 13% women.[23] It was at this time that the first women doctoral students entered the program.

Georgieanna (Georgie) Scheuerman (née Lobien), Gail Greenwald (née Green) and Sadie Salim were the first three women to receive doctoral degrees in 1980. They were followed by Ellen Pawlikowski (née Prusinski) in 1981. Georgie and Ellen did their doctoral research in the lab of John Prausnitz and were Fannie and John Hertz Foundation Fellows.

Both Women arrived at Berkeley with chemical engineering undergraduate degrees from the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT).  Ellen states, “Georgie and I both did our undergraduate work at the same school. She graduated two years ahead of me with my husband, Paul. They were friends. Both Georgie and I were valedictorians. When I came to look at the program at Berkeley, she was already doing research in thermodynamics in John Prausnitz’s lab which is what I wanted to study. She met me and showed me around.”

Georgie comments, “John Prausnitz was the person to study thermodynamics with at the time. He had people from all over the world in his lab. The group looked at things differently because of the diversity of their backgrounds. Professor Prausnitz wanted his students to be well rounded scientists and engineers making it a wonderful place to do research.”

John Prausnitz remembers when the women joined the lab. “It was quite unusual to have women in the group back then. They were the first in my lab. Ellen and Georgie were the ones who decided to work with me, not the other way around. I was very pleased to have them and welcomed them being there.”

John knew they would be successful. He states, “Ellen was extremely efficient and very good in her people skills. She caught on to new concepts immediately. Georgie had both intellect and personality. It was very clear they would both do well professionally.”

Ellen Pawlikowski (Ph.D. 1981, ChemE)

Ellen’s summer intern supervisor, David Zudkevitch had recommended Berkeley and the Prausnitz lab when she decided to pursue her Ph.D. Ellen was in the ROTC program and could delay her active duty service for only four years. The Chemical Engineering department had a rule that new graduate students did not select their research director until their second quarter at Berkeley.  Ellen states, “I called and asked John if I could come to his lab and start work immediately. He said yes. It caused a little bit of a stir at the time. He was a really fascinating guy. I was amazed at how effective he was at getting people to do things, especially when he wasn’t the subject expert.”

Ellen married her husband Paul in the summer of 1980. They met in ROTC at NJIT. Paul was stationed at Mather Air Force Base while she did her research at Berkeley. Ellen joined ROTC during high school. She states, “I joined the program because I was curious. I was in high school at the end of the Vietnam War. I remember seeing pictures and was fascinated by the military. The only ROTC program at my school was Air Force and that’s how I was introduced to my eventual career. It was really fortunate. At the time the Air Force had the highest tech and more opportunities for tech engineers particularly as a woman.”

Ellen only planned to be in the service for four years but wound up staying because she liked being part of something that contributed to society in a larger way. She continues, “I wound up being a ‘high priority’ as they were figuring out how to incorporate more women into the Air Force. They were heavily recruiting engineers and so they were very interested in me.”

That opportunity lead to a forty-year career in the Air Force culminating with her becoming the third woman to achieve the rank of four-star General. She went from the manager of the service’s airborne laser program, to its chief buyer of space technology, to ending her career as the head of Air Force Materiel Command before retiring. The command employs some 80,000 people and manages $60 billion annually, providing the Air Force with advanced technology research and development.

In the fall of 2019, she joined the USC Viterbi School of Engineering faculty at USC as the Judge Widney Professor. She also serves on the board of directors for several companies including Raytheon.

Ellen states, “Looking back on my time at Berkeley I never felt ostracized while I was in John Prausnitz’s lab. He got me to an area of research and then said that I would become a world expert. John taught me something fundamental as well. If John didn’t know something, he would reach out to his network to get answers.”

Georgieanna Scheuerman (Ph.D. 1980, ChemE)

Georgie states, “I entered college expecting to major in electrical engineering (EE). It was the ‘sexy’ major at the time. However, I discovered in my freshman physics class that electricity and electrical engineering just were not that interesting to me. And then I attended a presentation by the EE Honor Society and that clinched it. The president of the local Honor Society was so arrogant and “macho” that I turned my back on EE, deciding to major in chemical engineering in part because the faculty, staff, and students were much more welcoming. I also had found that I really enjoyed chemistry and the engineering that produces important chemicals at industrial scale.”

“As I was completing my graduate work at Berkeley, I decided that I wanted to go into industry and conduct research. There were many opportunities to do this for everyone graduating from the College at that time. I had the good fortune to get a job at Chevron Research Company in Richmond at Chevron’s Research Facility next to the refinery. Also, I met my husband Rick there.”

Georgie worked in research and management at Chevron for 37 years with her home base at the Research Center in Richmond. She worked on projects throughout the U.S. and around the world. She was part of teams that created technology resulting in about 10 U.S. patents that landed her name on the inventor list. Her most important invention was a method for withdrawing a catalyst (particulate solid) from a packed bed. Berkeley is also fortunate to have her sit on the College of Chemistry advisory board.

Some of Georgie’s many projects at Chevron included hydroprocessing, catalyst development for hydroprocessing, fluid catalytic cracking, delayed coking and high throughput experimentation. Her first major project, “On-stream Catalyst Replacement,” was commercialized and is used today to convert heavy oils into useful lighter petroleum products.

She states, “While there have been some teachers, fellow students, and colleagues who I didn’t always enjoy working with, I was most fortunate to have experienced mostly respect and encouragement from my teachers and colleagues throughout my education and career, a career where women were often hard to find.

“This was true both during my time at Berkeley and in my career at Chevron. I have watched many organizational changes over time address the issue of diversity. Today I think we know more, and organizations are recognizing that not just diversity, but diversity and inclusion are essential. “Science is about research but also about relating; learning how to ask questions and study in other areas. I think John Prausnitz tried to do that with both thermodynamics and people. You need to look more broadly at the world.”

[23] King, C. Judson, (2020) A History of Berkeley Chemical Engineering: Pairing Engineering and Science (unpublished manuscript) P 65-66