In America, a girl growing up on a farm in Kansas can become one of the nation’s top scientists. In fact, she can become an award-winning physical chemist, professor, international mentor, laser builder, problem solver, wife, mother, urban gardener with a flock of chickens, and runner. And at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), we are fortunate to call this scientist the Under Secretary for Science and Innovation, Dr. Geraldine Richmond.
Richmond’s curiosity in science was piqued by her mother, a beauty salon owner, who pointed out the chemicals in hair products that she knew were in the periodic table. In college, Richmond discovered lasers. She wanted to use them to learn more about the surface of water—how the molecules stick together to make it “like a trampoline.” Her work, and that of her students, helps find ways to safely remove pollutants, like oil and sulfur dioxide, which is produced by burning coal.
Three U.S. presidents have presented Richmond with three of the approximately 60 awards and honors she has earned throughout her career: the Presidential Young Investigator Award, the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Engineering Mentoring, and the National Medal of Science. She spent a decade (2012-2022) on the National Science Board thanks to two U.S. presidents and her 230-plus scientific publications, 100-plus lectures and addresses, and 75 seats on advisory and governing boards.
Twenty-year-old Richmond might have been surprised to hear she’d become a leader in her field. She was denied admission to a professor’s research group at Kansas State University, despite acing his class. The professor had selected a male student with lower grades instead. She asked another faculty member why. The answer: “You’re female.”
“That puzzled me,” says Richmond, who became the first tenure-track female faculty member of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College and the University of Oregon. After all, this incident occurred more than 50 years after women got the right to vote. As an undergraduate, she registered for a class called Sex and Politics. “What I learned in that class was that if you’re in male-dominated fields, there’s a high chance you’ll be discriminated against, and you need to watch out for it. I did not expect the class would be so relevant to me within months. But that was really a spark.”
Clean En∙er∙gy Cham∙pi∙on
/klēn/ /ˈenərjē/ /ˈCHampēən/
1. A person or group that takes action to support or join the transition to a renewable energy economy, with the knowledge that reducing carbon emissions provides daily benefits to every American so they can live happy and healthy lives.
In 1997, Richmond used that spark to become the founding director of the Committee on the Advancement of Women Chemists (COACh), which aims to increase the number and success of women scientists in the United States and globally. More than 25,000 women have attended COACh career-building workshops to overcome barriers to advancement. They learn how to negotiate, communicate, and resolve conflicts.
It gratifies Richmond to see her students grow and succeed. “Even with all the research, the students are the biggest prize,” she says. She finds speaking with COACh participants immensely rewarding, too, although her determination to support them has a different degree of intensity.
“There are people who have it a lot harder than I did and who are still suffering through this,” Richmond says.
Richmond is leading work at DOE to make sure the science and engineering workforce looks like America. Through the Reaching a New Energy Sciences Workforce (RENEW) program, universities that have historically been underrepresented for DOE research grants are gaining new access. President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative ensures that 40% of the benefits of federal investments go to underserved communities. And offices within Richmond’s portfolio are working every day to make sure these benefits reach people on the ground.
As Richmond builds people up, she also breaks down scientific silos at DOE so ideas for clean energy technologies can move quickly from basic science to development and then to deployment to mitigate the effects of climate change.
“You can get to an application and be like, ‘Oh, this material doesn’t work,’ so they need to be able to pass it back [to the basic scientists] to figure out how to make it work better. I believe we’re making progress on this with the Energy Earthshots and other cross-cutting areas. But we still need free thinking discovery science…. We have to identify what’s urgent, and if the cool, crazy ideas can feed into the urgency, then we win. We just have to get rid of the barriers.”