Donna J. Nelson

Born: December 31, 1969 | Eufaula, OK, US

Donna J. Nelson discusses her childhood in Eufaula, Oklahoma, where she was greatly influenced by her parents, especially her step-father, the town's only physician. Nelson joined the chemistry department at the University of Oklahoma, where she struggled for parity with the male students, and later went on to do graduate work at the University of Texas, Austin with Michael J. S. Dewar and post-doctorate work at Purdue University as Herbert C. Brown's first female post-doctorate. In addition to her role as faculty member of the University of Oklahoma chemistry department, Nelson also conducted surveys of women and minorities in the top chemistry departments and researched issues surrounding women and minorities in chemistry and the sciences. 

Access This Interview

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.


Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0482
No. of pages: 67
Minutes: 227

Interview Sessions

Hilary Domush and Leah Webb-Halpern
21-22 July 2008
University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma

Abstract of Interview

Donna J. Nelson's oral history begins with a discussion of her childhood in Eufaula, Oklahoma—a small town with Native American influences that grew into a much larger town throughout her youth. Heavily influenced by her parents, Nelson was a motivated student who wanted to work with and help people as her step-father, the town's only physician, had done. Nelson entered the University of Oklahoma with the intentions of pursuing medicine and possibly majoring in math. After joining the chemistry department, Nelson was immediately confronted with the contrasts between female and male students; she excelled in the coursework but needed to work harder in the laboratory to maintain parity with the male students (the male students, Nelson believed, were used to the manual dexterity of lab work from experience working on cars). After graduating, Nelson spent a brief time working on MINDO/3 calculations at Auburn University for Philip B. Shevlin and S. David Worley. There Nelson decided that, for graduate school, she only wanted to work with Michael J. S. Dewar at the University of Texas at Austin who developed the methodology. Near the end of her time in Austin, Dewar helped Nelson secure a post-doctoral position with Herbert C. Brown at Purdue University, where she became Brown's first female post-doctorate. Nelson described her work and other experiences under Brown, which included giving birth to her son Christopher and returning to lab the following week. After detailing her early experiences as the first tenure-track female faculty member of the University of Oklahoma chemistry department, Nelson moved on to explaining the importance of listening to women's experiences in order to help develop true parity in the scientific community. Throughout the interview Nelson referenced what she learned as a member of a Women in Science group at Purdue, and also what she learned by seeking advice from colleagues, that is, that “the best path to follow is a well-educated decision; no one can tell you what to do or what is best for you, but their experiences can help you to shape your own decisions." Nelson continued the interview by explaining how a 2000 C&E News article, prompted her to conduct a survey of women and minorities in the top chemistry departments. She described the initial survey work that led to further surveys of other disciplines whose departments were ranked by the National Science Foundation. Her survey work and research have been quoted in such varied places as Ms.  Magazine and Harvard University's chemistry department Web site. Since the survey work, much of Nelson's time has been spent researching issues surrounding women and minorities in chemistry and the sciences and working with Marye Anne Fox at University of California, San Diego, as well as with SACNAS. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1974 University of Oklahoma BS Chemistry
1980 University of Texas at Austin PhD Chemistry (with Michael J. S. Dewar)

Professional Experience

Purdue University

1980 to 1983
Post-Doctorate, Chemistry

University of Oklahoma

1983 to 1990
Assistant Professor, Chemistry
1989 to 1990
Provost's Faculty Administrative Fellow
1990 to 2009
Associate Professor, Chemistry
2005 to 2007
Assistant to ACS President Ann Nalley
Organic Division Chair, Chemistry
Development Officer, Chemistry

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

2003 to 2004
Visiting Professor


Year(s) Award
1977 to 1979

Robert A. Welch Predoctoral Fellow


Robert A. Welch Postdoctoral Fellow


University of Oklahoma Junior Faculty Research Fellow


ACS Petroleum Research Foundation Type G Award


Research Corporation Cottrell Scholar Award

1985 to 1986

Oklahoma University Associates' Distinguished Lecturer


The Iotan Member Spotlight


Oklahoma University Sooners Football Team Honorary Faculty Coach


Alpha Phi Omega Leader of the 20th Century


Capitol Hill Briefing


Woman of Achievement, US Black Engineer and Information Technology Magazine

2003 to 2004

Ford Foundation Fellowship


Guggenheim Award


Capitol Hill Briefing


Capitol Hill Press Conference Speaker


Woman of Courage Award, National Organization for Women


SACNAS National Conference Keynote Speaker

2004 to 2005

Outstanding Professor, Oklahoma Educator's Leadership Academy

2004 to 2005

50 Making a Difference, Oklahoma City's Journal Record


Minority Health Professions Foundation Hall of Fame Inductee


Twentieth Anniversary MIT Women's Studies Program Opening Speaker


Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Sciences


21 Leaders for the 21st Century, Women's eNews


Research Featured on ACS Organic Division Calendar


SACNAS Distinguished Scientist of the Year

2006 to 2009

NSF ADVANCE Leadership Award


Fulbright Scholar


Dow Chemical Company Advisory Board

Table of Contents


Growing up in Eufaula, Oklahoma. Native American influences. Stepfather was the town's only physician. Importance of education and becoming someone with that education. Interests in math and science.

Undergraduate Education

University of Oklahoma. Contrasting laboratory skills of men who worked on cars and herself. Influences of Norman Fogel and Ron Kantowski.

Graduate Education

Working at Auburn University with S. David Worley and Philip B. Shevlin. University of Texas, Austin. Physical chemistry research with Michael J. S. Dewar. MINDO/3. Dewar's assistance looking for postdoctoral positions.

Postdoctoral Work

Purdue University and Herbert C. Brown. Husband finding a job. Transition from mostly computational work to experimental. First female post-doctorate in the group. Giving birth and coming back to work the next week. Balancing day-care and working half-days, then full-time. Interactions with other females in the department. Women in Science and Engineering group. Women Chemists Committee lunches at American Chemical Society meetings. Listening to other women's experiences.

Principal Investigator

University of Oklahoma. First tenure-track female in chemistry department. Balancing work and raising a one-year-old son. Christopher spending time in the laboratory. Working with students who are mothers. Same department chair for 25 years. Dealing with discrimination. Role models, mentors, and resource distribution.

National Level Surveys

2000 C&E News article about women in chemistry. Thinking about the distribution of women and minorities through chemistry departments in academia. Mailed surveys to department chairs regarding the numbers of women and minority faculty and their professorial rank. Recognition of discrimination over time. Creation of a community around the minority chemistry faculty. Published in AWIS Magazine—not a peer-reviewed journal. ACS checks and verifies the data. Survey similar data for the top fifty departments ranked by NSF in other disciplines. Intense feedback. Capitol Hill briefings and Congressman Vernon J. Ehlers.

Diversity Research and Experiences

Ford Fellowship. Chancellor Diversity Scholar at UCSD. Marye Anne Fox. SACNAS. Surveys, discussion, awareness, and change. Historical mentors. Marie Curie. Ann Nalley.

Principal Investigator

Single wall carbon nanotubes. Ann Nalley's ACS Presidential Event. Richard E. Smalley memorial symposium.

Diversity Research and Experiences

Title IX and science. Public perception of scientists. Image of Marie Curie. Television show Breaking Bad.


About the Interviewer

Hilary Domush

Hilary Domush was a Program Associate in the Center for Oral History at CHF from 2007–2015. Previously, she earned a BS in chemistry from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 2003.  She then completed an MS in chemistry and an MA in history of science both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her graduate work in the history of science focused on early nineteenth-century chemistry in the city of Edinburgh, while her work in the chemistry was in a total synthesis laboratory.  At CHF, she worked on projects such as the Pew Biomedical Scholars, Women in Chemistry, Atmospheric Science, and Catalysis.

Leah Webb-Halpern

Leah Webb-Halpern graduated from Smith College with a major in history and a minor in Latin American studies. Prior to joining the Chemical Heritage Foundation as an oral history program assistant, she was a research assistant at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Leah has moved on from the CHF and is currently a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.