150 years and counting: women power up in the ’90s

Graduate students in the College of Chemistry, 1990 Friends and fellow graduate students celebrate a group birthday in 1994. Top row: Lisa Hernandez, Arti Prasad, Laura Smoliar, and Erica Kuo; Bottom row: Yi-Chyi Wu, Marcia Ziegeweid, and Nerine Cherepy. Photo courtesy Nerine Cherepy.

Laura Smoliar and Nerine Cherepy began their doctoral degrees at Berkeley in 1990. By that time, more than 240 women had received Ph.D.s from the College. Nationally, women were receiving 24% of the doctoral degrees in chemistry. Graduate funding for women was about the same as for men; women’s salaries in academia and industry were approximately three-fourths of their male counterparts; about 12% of academic positions were held by women; and women made up about 7.5% of management positions in industry R&D research units.[24]

Laura and Nerine met on the bus between Stanford and Berkeley. They had been accepted into graduate school at both universities. Prospective students traveled to look at the Stanford program, and then visited the College of Chemistry. Laura states, “Nerine and I met on that bus. We remembered that when we showed up and saw each other again on campus for the first time.”

Nerine continues, “When we started at Berkeley and saw each other in a class and it was like, ‘hey remember me? I met you on the bus. Oh yeah.’ We’ve been friends ever since.”

Nerine Cherepy (Ph.D. 1996, Chem)

Nerine Cherepy (Ph.D. 1996, Chem)

Nerine’s science journey started as a youngster in the mountainous mining region of southern Arizona. She was fascinated by the gems and minerals she collected near her home. She did her undergraduate studies in chemistry at Arizona State University and in her junior year went to the Hautes Etudes d’Ingenieur in Lille, France. Nerine remarks, “It was very difficult and challenging being there, but I really loved it. I was surprised to find it was normal for the French to smoke in the chemistry lab at the time. I did an in-depth experimental chemistry research project that resulted in a published paper and it was then I realized I really enjoyed research.”

When Nerine came to Berkeley, she entered the lab of Richard Mathies. She was interested in laser spectroscopy and wanted to study the energetics of photosynthesis. At the time, Mathies was doing Raman spectroscopy on biological and organic systems. Mathies’ lab was a large enterprise. She received mentoring not just from Professor Mathies, but also from her fellow graduate students and the postdocs.

After finishing her Ph.D., she went on to a postdoctoral research appointment at UC Santa Cruz in the lab of Jin Z. Zhang. He was doing femtosecond spectroscopy which was then an exciting new laser application. Nerine states, “I did studies with Raman spectroscopy at Berkeley for my doctorate. We had figured out a way to get spectra that people had never gotten before. During my postdoc, I worked with a variety of new materials. A colleague and I found we could extract the dye from California blackberries and use that in a photoelectrical solar cell. No one had ever done that before. To this day it is my most highly cited publication.”

She was given the opportunity to be a lecturer at Santa Cruz but found teaching a 350-student class a challenge.  Nerine comments, “I asked my colleagues what I should do. They said that I was a really good researcher, had great ideas, and that they valued how I had helped them design and interpret their experiments.

“I interviewed with several companies but couldn’t find a good match. I got lucky with Lawrence Livermore Lab. They were happy to hire me, and I’ve worked on all kinds of research projects related to light, optical materials and energy conversion. I’ve had the job assignment of ‘Research Scientist’ ever since.”

She joined Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1998. Since 2005, she has worked on the development of new light-emitting materials including single crystals; transparent ceramics and plastics for various uses in ionizing radiation detection; and new imaging screens and lighting phosphors. To date, she is an inventor on 18 awarded patents and has published 146 papers.

Laura Smoliar (Ph.D. 1995, Chem)

Laura Smoliar (Ph.D. 1995, Chem)

Laura was born and raised in New York City. Her mother Barbara worked for Nobel Laureate Rosalyn Yalow who had established a radioisotope laboratory at the VA Hospital in the Bronx. Laura’s introduction to science began when she would visit her mother and play in the lab while she was at work.  

Laura did her undergraduate degree at Columbia College where she studied with Brian Bent who was a student of Gabor Somorjai. Laura decided to do her doctoral work at Berkeley but was conflicted about whether she should work for Gabor Somarjai or Nobel Laureate Yuan T. Lee. She was interested in working with molecular beam surface scattering and her work straddled both of their research areas. Somarjai settled it for her by telling her to work with Lee but that he would be available as well to mentor her.

Laura states, “Yuan wasn’t around very much. He was always traveling. You have to remember this was before the internet and email. His big thing was the fax machine. Before he went on one of his trips, I would visit him and he would give me his itinerary, including hotels, and their fax numbers. If you sent him a fax, he would respond within 24 hours. I think he got his best work done on airplanes.”

Lee returned to his home country of Taiwan to serve as President of Academia Sinica in 1994. Laura spent her last year of graduate school working with Lee in Taiwan and then did a postdoc as an Academia Sinica Fellow. She says, “My experience in Taiwan changed the course of my career, and I have worked collaboratively with companies and institutes in Asia ever since.”

Laura started her career working for several companies in Silicon Valley. She founded her first startup in 2005 getting experience in licensing technology and raising financing. She sold it and started a second firm with her husband, electrical engineer Mark Arbore. After they sold the firm in 2013, Laura joined up with fellow doctoral student Ted Hou (Ph.D., 1995, Chem), who had also studied with Y.T. Lee, to form Global Innovation Foundry. In 2017, working with the College of Chemistry, they started the Berkeley Catalyst Fund, a venture capital fund aimed at commercializing research from the College, Berkeley Lab, and UCSF and structured to financially benefit the college.

Laura and Nerine’s friendship has continued in interesting ways throughout their careers. Laura comments, “At one point I had a small company that did a lot of work with Japanese clients. A client showed me a picture of a group of people one day and said they were trying to get access to some particular technology from Livermore. I looked at the picture and thought ‘Wow, that’s Nerine.’ They looked at me and said, ‘Do you know Nerine?’ They thought Nerine was a goddess. I told them she was my graduate school roommate. They asked me to arrange a meeting with her. We ended up doing a complicated license deal with Livermore to get them access to the technology. I think it was not long after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.”

Laura continues, “I think it was hard to find jobs when Nerine and I came out of the university. The economy wasn’t great. Also, the workplace was very different. It has radically changed since then. For instance, many people go into startups now. That option wasn’t available when we looked for work.”

Nerine agrees. “I think the roles of men and women in the workplace have benefited from a greater open mindedness that is starting to emerge. There’s more acceptance of a woman as a creative force behind a team today. I think it’s quite an improvement.”

It will be very interesting to see what the landscape for women in science looks like 150 years from now.

[24] Matyas, Marsha Lakes, et. al editors, Science and Engineering Programs: On Target for Women? National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1992 PP 27-37

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