The popular Apple+ miniseries Lessons in Chemistry, based on the novel by Bonnie Garmus, chronicles the life of a female chemist who challenged the status quo in the mid-1900s.
The story of Garmus, who earned a bachelor’s degree from a small Virginia women’s college in the 1950s, is the story of several University of Mary Washington alumnae who also made breakthroughs in science and broke through the glass ceiling for the next generation of women.
“These women overcame obstacles at a time when there were few women in STEM and found success in their fields,” Vice President for Advancement and Alumni Engagement Katie Turcotte said. “We are so thankful to them and others who continue to invest in their alma mater so that students today can achieve their goals, just as they did.”
February 11 was International Day of Women and Girls in Science, and UMW recognized alumnae who have established or contributed toward scholarships and other awards in the sciences. Twenty-one graduates have given $10,000 or more to areas of science and all were women. The scholarships enable the next generation of women to enter STEM careers.
Irene Piscopo Rodgers graduated UMW in 1959. When she died in 2022, she left the university a gift of $30 million, the largest in UMW’s history of giving. Her gift will enable the exponential growth of UMW’s undergraduate scientific research program and create four new Alvey Scholarships, which provide full tuition, fees, and room and board for out-of-state students. Rodgers previously created eight Alvey Scholarships.
The first of the new scholarships will be awarded in spring 2024 to an incoming student at UMW who plans to pursue biology, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, physics, or Earth and environmental science.
In 1988, Anne Hope Scott, also a 1959 graduate of UMW, made a provision in her estate plan to fund the Anne Hope Scott ’59 Scholarship in Chemistry. Scott was a chemist and consumer safety officer with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for 34 years and also taught. She died in 2022.
An education at Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia “opened worlds” for Rodgers and she wanted to create the same opportunities for other students.
UMW senior Sofia Taylor is an Alvey Scholarship recipient who corresponded regularly with Rodgers through cards and letters.
“I hope you know that everything I’m doing here at UMW was made possible because of your generosity,” Taylor, a psychology major and music and neuroscience minor, said a recent video created at UMW. “I will continue to make you proud as a woman in STEM and sing your praises for all past and future Alvey Scholars to hear.”
Dr. Jerri Barden Perkins, a 1961 graduate, was a chemist, physician, researcher and author. She credited her start in STEM to a $100 scholarship she received at Mary Washinton. “This is my way of paying it forward for future generations.”
Perkins’ giving made it possible for Harrison Miles to earn a post-baccalaureate degree in conservation biology in 2023 with the John C. and Jerri Barden Perkins ’61 College of Arts and Sciences Student Research Fellowship. Miles’ research last summer focused on using fungus extracted from the invasive spotted lantern fly.
“Without the scientific background and support of my Mary Washington professors, I could not have achieved my goals,” Dr. Perkins, who faced gender bias in medical school and throughout her career, said.
Perkins went on to train at the National Institutes of Health, where she made groundbreaking discoveries into rheumatoid arthritis. At the FDA she recommended the first therapy to treat AIDS patients.
Marilyn Shull Black graduated Mary Washington in 1969. Her giving made it possible for Docia Atanda, a 2023 UMW graduate, to continue research with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Sarah Smith, a 2012 graduate. Atanda and Smith also received awards from Rodgers.
Atanda is pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Maryland and hopes to use her science education to contribute to the greater good just like Black, who spent her career studying indoor air quality and its impact on children’s health.
“Dr. Black, thank you for believing in the power of education and investing in students like me,” Atanda said. “Your support has changed my life and enabled me and other Mary Washington students to pursue our dreams and make a difference in the world.”