Margaret E. M. Tolbert

Born: November 24, 1943 | Suffolk, VA, US

Margaret E. M. Tolbert was born in Suffolk, Virginia at a time when rural Virginia was still very segregated. Her high school had limited resources, but she found excellent mentors and graduated class valedictorian. She decided to attend Tuskegee University for her undergraduate degree, ultimately majoring in chemistry. Though she was the only female student in her class, Tolbert found a community of supportive professors and students with an interest in her well-being. She went on to complete her master's degree in chemistry at Wayne State University and her PhD in Biochemistry at Brown University. After completing her doctorate, Tolbert returned to Tuskegee as a faculty member, but soon took guest research and management positions at the University of Texas, Florida A&M University, and Brown University; she also completed a postdoctorate in Brussels, Belgium. In 1979, she took the opportunity to become the first woman director of the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee University. After almost a decade at the Carver Research Foundation, she went to Standard Oil of Ohio on sabbatical. From that point onward, she transitioned permanently to science management positions, working for BP America, the National Science Foundation, Argonne National Laboratory, and the New Brunswick Laboratory. 

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

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0648
No. of pages: 72
Minutes: 151

Interview Sessions

Jeannette E. Brown
13 August 2009
National Science Foundation, Arlington, Virginia

Abstract of Interview

Margaret E. M. Tolbert was born in Suffolk, Virginia at a time when rural Virginia was still very segregated. She and her siblings were raised by their grandmother within a large extended family. Growing up, Tolbert took cleaning jobs in her community to make money. In this way, she met Mr. and Mrs. Cook, who, as educated and relatively well-off African Americans, encouraged her to get a good education. Her high school had limited resources, but she found excellent mentors and graduated class valedictorian. She decided to attend Tuskegee University for her undergraduate degree, with the intention of entering medicine. At Tuskegee, she was drawn to chemistry and research, a career path she had not been exposed to before. Though she was the only female student in her class, Tolbert found a community of supportive professors and students with an interest in her well-being. She went on to complete her master's degree in chemistry at Wayne State University, but immediately returned to Tuskegee as a technician to be with her husband. She was interested in becoming a chemistry professor, so at the Cooks' urging she applied to a PhD program at Brown University, which was recruiting minority students. By this time, Tolbert's first marriage had ended, and the Cooks cared for Tolbert's son while she earned her degree. At Brown, she met her second husband, Henry Hudson Tolbert. After completing her doctorate, Tolbert returned to Tuskegee as a faculty member, but soon took guest research and management positions at the University of Texas, Florida A&M University, and Brown University. She also completed a postdoctorate in Brussels, Belgium, where her Congolese colleagues were fascinated by her African-American heritage. While Tolbert had intended to stay in research, she found herself drawn to management positions. In 1979, she took the opportunity to become the first woman director of the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee University. In this position, she oversaw institutional development in the university's research programs, but she also traveled to affiliated institutions as far away as Liberia and Libya. After almost a decade at the Carver Research Foundation, she went to Standard Oil of Ohio on sabbatical. From that point onward, she transitioned permanently to science management positions, working for BP America, the National Science Foundation, Argonne National Laboratory, and the New Brunswick Laboratory. In these positions, her responsibilities included overseeing development, funding, and diversity-based initiatives. Tolbert is currently at the National Science Foundation, funding programs and developing policy focused on increasing diversity in science and technology. During the interview she spoke repeatedly about the importance of mentoring, and the opportunities networking provides to develop mentors, colleagues, and future opportunities. She concludes the interview by giving young women the advice to get a strong math/science background, and to make informed decisions. She also speaks to the unique ability of minority-serving institutions to provide an education while still cultivating the whole student. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1967 Tuskegee University BS Chemistry
1968 Wayne State University MS Analytical Chemistry
1974 Brown University PhD Biochemistry

Professional Experience

Tuskegee University

1969
Biomedical Research Technician
1969 to 1970
Instructor of Mathematics
1973 to 1976
Assistant Professor of Chemistry; Associate Professor of Chemistry; Professor of Chemistry
1980 to 1988
Professor of Chemistry

Opportunities Industrialization Center

1971 to 1972
Instructor of Mathematics and Science (Providence, Rhode Island campus)

Brown University

1973
Instructor of Chemistry for Transitional Program
1978 to 1979
Associate Professor of Medical Science & MARC Faculty Fellow in Research

Lawrence Livermore Laboratory

1974
Research Associate in the Biomedical Institute

Southern Vocational College

1974
Instructor of Biology and Mathematics

University of Texas Medical School at Houston

1977
Visiting Scientist

Florida A&M University

1977
Researcher
1977 to 1979
Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences
1977 to 1979
Associate Dean of the School of Pharmacy

International Institute of Cellular & Molecular Pathology

1977 to 1978
Guest Research Scientist & MARC Faculty Fellow

Carver Research Foundation of Tuskegee Institute

1979 to 1988
Director and Associate Provost for Research and Outreach (Development)

University of Alabama at Birmingham

1982 to 1983
Member of the Board of Trustees

Federal Reserve Bank

1985 to 1987
Director of the Birmingham Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta; Chair of the Birmingham Bank

BP America, Inc.

1988 to 1990
Senior Budgets and Control Analyst, Research Center
1988 to 1990
Senior Planner, Research Center

National Science Foundation

1990 to 1993
Program Director; Special Assistant to the Vice Chair of the Committee on Education and Training of the Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering, and Technology
2002 to 2010
Senior Advisor (Senior Executive Service)
2002 to 2010
Director, Science and Technology Centers Integrative Partnerships Program
2002 to 2010
Executive Liaison, Committee on equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering

Howard Hughes Medical Institute

1994
Program Officer for International Programs

Argonne National Laboratory

1994 to 1996
Director of the Division of Educational Programs

US Department of Energy

1996 to 2002
Director, New Brunswick Laboratory
2001
Acting Associate Director, Office of Laboratory Operations and Environment, Safety and Health in the Office of Science

Honors

Year(s) Award
1970 to 1971

Brown University Fellowship

1971 to 1973

Southern Fund Fellowship for Graduate Study at Brown University

1975

Outstanding Teacher, College of Arts and Sciences, Tuskegee Institute

1975

Plaque awarded by MBS Trainees for outstanding service to student trainees at Tuskegee Institute

1976

Personalities of the South Award in recognition of achievements and outstanding service to the community and state

1978

Plaque awarded by undergraduate and graduate students in the Career Outreach Awareness Program in appreciation of the outstanding work in student preparation

1978 to 1979

NIH/NIGMS-MARC Faculty Research Fellowship Award—Served as Guest Scientist, International Institute for Cellular and Molecular Pathology in Brussels, Belgium and Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island

1981

Alabama Democratic Conference Award in Science and Medicine

1981 to 2010

Presidential Associate, Tuskegee Institute

1982

Plaque for service to Tuskegee Public Schools

1983

Faculty Achievement Award, Tuskegee Institute

1983

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Award for Outstanding Service and Contributions to Education

1983

Tuskegee Lions Club Award

1983

Certificate of Service for Outstanding Service in Lionism and the Tuskegee Eye Bank

1984

Certificate of Service for Outstanding Service in Lionism and the Tuskegee Eye Bank

1984

The Woman of the Year Award received from the Alpha Xi Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority

1985

Certificate of Service for Outstanding Service in Lionism and the Tuskegee Eye Bank

1985

Academic Tenure awarded by Tuskegee University

1985

Certificate of Appreciation and Recognition awarded for Eminent Volunteer Service and Sincere Dedication in the District Court of Macon County-Juvenile and Outreach Service

1985

Plaque awarded by the East Tennessee Chapter of the National Contractor Management Association

1987

Certificate of Distinguished Service to the Federal Reserve System and Excellent Contributions to the Federal Reserve Bank and to Economic Progress of the Sixth Federal Reserve District

1988

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellow

1996

Women's History Month Award Certificate of Appreciation from Women in Science Technology/Argonne National Laboratory

1996

Among the women honored with a luncheon and program at the White House during the “Women Making History” celebration

1997 to 2001

The Chicago Operations Office/US Department of Energy Performance Award

1998

Secretary of Energy Pride Award for Community Service

1999

Chicago-Tuskegee Alumni Club President's Merit Award

2000

Honoree in the Museum of Science and Industry's Black Creativity Exhibit: African-American Women in Science and Technology"

2000

Honored by the US Department of Energy as it focused on advancing the status of women in the program titled "Women in Science"

2001

Women of Color in Government and Defense Technology Award in Managerial Leadership

2001

Appreciation Plaque from the Albuquerque Operations Office/US Department of Energy

2005

Performance Award from the National Science Foundation

2007

The Dr. George Washington Carver Distinguished Service Award from Tuskegee University

Table of Contents

Childhood
1

Born in rural Virginia. Segregation. Family background. Mother's death. Living with grandmother. Household chores. Joining Girl Scouts. Earning money. "Momma" and "Daddy" Cook. Segregated schools. Limited scientific equipment. Strong mentors.

College Years
12

Tuskegee University. Scholarships. Lack of women in chemistrydepartment. Summer research internships. Strong student and facultymentoring. Decision to become a chemist.

Graduate Years
20

Master's degree at Wayne State University. First marriage. Return toTuskegee. Technician job. Birth of son. Faculty position in mathdepartment, but not chemistry. Brown University recruiter. Doctoratedegree at Brown University. Affirmative action. Second marriage.

Early Career
28

Chemistry faculty at Tuskegee. Visiting researcher in at Florida A&MUniversity and University of Texas. End of second marriage. Prioritizing her son's education. Postdoctorate in Belgium. First woman director of Carver Research Foundation. Board of Trustees at University of Alabama and Federal Reserve Branch. Travel to Africa.

Later Career
44

Sabbatical at Standard Oil of Ohio. Highest-ranking African-American woman at BP America. Importance of family ties. Temporary positions at NSF. Power of networking. Argonne National Laboratory. New Brunswick Laboratory. Return to NSF.

Reflection and Advice to Young Women
68

Importance of strong math and science background. Taking informed risks. Importance of networking and mentors. Societal need for minority-serving institutions.

Index
70

About the Interviewer

Jeannette E. Brown

Jeannette E. Brown has a research MS degree from the University of Minnesota and a BS degree in the Field of Chemistry from Hunter College. She started her industrial career at CIBA Pharmaceutical Co. as a junior chemist, working there for eleven years, and she held the position of Research Chemist at Merck & Co. Inc. for 25 years. Brown is a former Faculty Associate in the department of Pre-College Programs at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, holding the title of New Jersey Statewide Systemic Initiative (NJSSI) Regional Director. She was appointed to the National Science Foundation Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women Minorities and Persons with Disabilities (CEOSE) and served on that committee for six years. She is the 2005 recipient of the American Chemical Society Dreyfus Award for mentoring minorities in science and she is currently working on a book about the history of African-American women chemists.