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Donna Nelson, Ph.D.

2011 Recipient of the Stanley C. Israel Regional Award for Advancing Diversity in the Chemical Sciences for the Southwest Region


Dr. Donna Nelson, professor of chemistry at Oklahoma University, obtained her Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin with MJS Dewar, did her postdoctorate at Purdue with HC Brown, and joined Oklahoma University in 1983. Her research areas are in nanoscience, communicating science to the public, and scientific workforce development, and she frequently speaks on their interrelationship. She has over 100 publications and several honors, including American Chemical Society (ACS) Fellow, Fulbright Scholar, National Science Foundation (NSF) ADVANCE Leadership Award, Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) Distinguished Scientist, Women's eNews "21 Leaders for the 21st Century," American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellow, Guggenheim Award, National Organization for Women (NOW) "Woman of Courage," Ford Fellow, Sigma Xi Faculty Research Award, NSF Creativity Extension, and many keynote talks. Her nanoscience research involves functionalizing single walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs), with applications in energy research and technology development, and showed that both covalent functionalization and complexation of organic molecules to SWCNTs causes nearby protons to be shifted downfield in the nuclear magnetic resonance spectrum. She advises television programs, such as Breaking Bad, in order to further the universal goal of presenting accurate science to television audiences. In accord with this program, in 2011, she organized the highly-popular Hollywood Chemistry symposium at the Anaheim ACS Meeting and Science on the Screen symposia at the Denver ACS Meeting, for ACS President Nancy Jackson. Her scientific workforce surveys, of faculty race/ethnicity, gender, and rank in science and engineering at research universities, revealed that women and minorities are much less represented among professors than degree recipients. The Nelson Diversity Surveys final report is at More information is at

When and how did you first become interested in chemistry? Who or what helped nurture this interest?
My father and grandfather were both M.D.s in our hometown. My original plan was to take my father's practice, as he had taken his father's. However, when I was a sophomore in college, he pointed out that I could select a different profession in which I would have more flexibility, surround myself with happier people, and work toward lifelong learning. That was when I decided I wanted to be a professor. I had already taken so many chemistry courses by that time, that I got my degree in that field.

What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
I had MJS Dewar and HC Brown as mentors. They were both professional, ingenious, and egalitarian. My parents and my mentors always made me believe that I could do anything I chose to do. My mother, in particular, told me every day of my life that she wanted me to be a benefit to society. I have achieved this to some degree by my work to diversify science.

In your pursuit of chemistry, did you encounter any experiences or challenges that were completely unexpected or that you weren’t prepared for? If so, how did you handle them?
I didn't expect the barriers I found in my faculty position, mostly from professors in my own division. As a graduate student and postdoc, I had been warned by other women, and I was prepared for disparate treatment by listening to how they handled their situations. However, I wasn't prepared that as a faculty member, when I pointed out inequity, instead of an apology I received retaliation.

What motivates you in your professional life? Outside of your professional life?
I am happy to know that I have made a difference nationally through my Nelson Diversity Surveys and by my example of courage in facing discrimination in my professional life.

What advice would you give to young people from underrepresented backgrounds who are interested in a career in chemistry?
Persist and have courage.