Caroline Jarrold: Blazing a Trail for Young Women Chemists
August 6, 2020
Before the explosion of COVID-19, Professor Caroline Jarrold, chair of the Chemistry department, was scheduled to travel to Philadelphia to accept a medal from the American Chemical Society for distinguished service to chemistry by female chemists.
Though the Frances P. Garvan–John M. Olin Medal and its presentation were intended to honor her achievements as a woman in chemistry, Jarrold was also planning to deliver two speeches during the event: one on science and the other, in her own words, “about what we as a chemical community can do to at least lower the barriers for women in science. It’s a multidimensional problem, and we can’t just focus on one thing”.
Jarrold is accustomed to operating in multiple dimensions. She is a physical chemist who uses mass and laser spectrometry to study electron-neutral interactions. Her research could one day have applications for energy and environmental research. In addition to working with IU graduate and postdoctoral students, she collaborates with theoreticians at IU, IUPUI, and the University of California, Merced.
She is also the mother of three “wonderful, brilliant kids,” as she describes them. Her oldest son is a civil engineer, her daughter is an IU history major, and her youngest is a high-school junior. Jarrold is troubled by how often female chemistry graduate students come to her seeking reassurance that they too can have both an academic career and a family. So, her career has acquired yet another dimension: she is devoted to helping women follow her path.
Chemistry underlies everything. Knowing why a chair is red rather than green or the science behind cooking—that’s why I’m a physical chemist.
Not that she always wanted to be a chemist: “Absolutely not,” she says. “When I went to college at the University of Michigan, I had it in mind that I would like to become a biological illustrator. Before they’d let me take biology, though, I had to take chemistry and I fell in love. I credit the professor who taught my freshman chemistry class for converting me. To this day, I thank him every time I see him.”
Explaining her attraction is simple: “Chemistry underlies everything. Knowing why a chair is red rather than green or understanding the science behind cooking—that’s why I’m a physical chemist.” As an undergraduate, she had a chance to conduct her own research, designing her own circuits and instruments.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen when you do your own experiments. Doing something no one has done before is thrilling,” Jarrold says. “Creating knowledge is exciting.” She is proud that today the IU Chemistry department offers undergrads many research opportunities.
As a student, Jarrold was used to being one of only a few women in her classes and labs. But it wasn’t a position she relished. So, when she searched for academic posts, she looked at departments to be sure that they already had female faculty.
“I didn’t want to be the first,” she says. Having said that, Jarrold has racked up several firsts at IU: she is the first woman to chair her department, as well as the first woman to be promoted to full professor of chemistry. And though it’s not a first, she was also named a Herman B Wells Endowed Professor in 2018, the same year she became department chair.
Jarrold says that her eyes were really opened to the problem of gender bias later in her career, when she got her first faculty appointment. As a student, she says, “I felt pretty oblivious to gender bias. I knew I was being treated differently. Sometimes it was to my benefit and sometimes not.”
Later, as a young faculty member at IU, she explains, “I was trying to build a lab. I was trying to publish papers. Normally a department will leave junior faculty members alone so they can get their careers started. And although my department was incredibly supportive, if a female candidate in chemistry or physics was being interviewed, I was always asked to meet her so I could assure her that women were treated well here.”
Eileen Friel, astronomy professor and former associate dean for Natural and Mathematical Sciences and Research in the College, echoes Jarrold’s observations. “In my field, it’s not unusual for me to go to a meeting where I’m the only woman in a room of ten. When you’re the only woman in a room, you’re seen as a woman rather than as a scientist,” she says. “It’s not until you get to a threshold of, say, 30 or 40 percent that you start to be identified not as a woman but on the kind of science you do.”
Friel also agrees with Jarrold that women in the sciences have far more faculty service responsibilities than men. The problem arises, Friel explains, because departments want female representation on committees. However, because there are so few women faculty, the same women must serve on many committees. “When you spend a lot of energy on something not directly related to your research, you tend not to be as productive,” Friel says.
IU—like all American colleges and universities—is far from attaining gender equity. Statistics gathered by the Office of the Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion show that the number of female faculty in the sciences has not significantly improved for several years. In fact, the percent of women among all tenure-eligible STEM faculty at Indiana University Bloomington declined slightly between 2014 and 2018, falling from 28% to 27%.
However, Friel says, “the issue of women and minorities in the sciences has become a focus for both the College and the University. We’re really aware of the issue and we’re working hard to change. It’s a long-term process. It really takes time to see the numbers move.”
You need everybody to collaborate to have the biggest impact. You can only increase the positive results of your work by having people with different backgrounds, with different points of view.
Jarrold is among the women faculty at IU who are determined to lead this long-term process toward gender equality in academia. She and her colleague Professor Martha Oakley realized that the attrition rate for female chemistry graduate students was high. In response, they formed a Women in Chemistry group that held informal support sessions. “There was a lot of pent-up frustration that female graduate students felt, so it was nice for them to have a safe place to share their experiences,” Jarrold says.
Since then, the Chemistry department has added more female faculty; it’s undergone an external review and started a diversity affairs committee. But challenges remain. Jarrold notes that in first-year chemistry classes, the genders are well balanced. “But there’s a gradual leakage in upper-level courses that extends into graduate school.”
She and other Chemistry faculty make an effort to mentor female undergraduates so that they’ll go on to graduate school. “It’s really important for our undergrads to see a more diverse graduate school population. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” she explains.
Even when women do enter graduate school, “a lot of them are ambivalent about going into academia,” she continues. “They think that they can’t have children and an academic career.”
Jarrold says her role is not to persuade young women to join academia, but to reassure them that it is possible to strike a work-life balance.
“It’s not that women bring anything special to the picture,” Jarrold explains as she discusses her career-long commitment to diversity. “It’s that you need everybody to collaborate to have the biggest impact. You can only increase the positive results of your work by having people with different backgrounds, with different points of view.”