October 29, 2015

Alumna Gift Establishes Scholarship Program for Female STEM Undergraduates

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The estate of Marilyn Jacox Ph.D. ’56, who died in 2013, has donated $1.5 million to the College of Arts and Sciences to fund a scholarship program for female undergraduates studying science and math.

Jacox received her bachelor’s degree from Utica College of Syracuse University in 1951 and went on to complete her doctoral research at Cornell.  However, when she applied for a position at over 75 universities after graduation, Jacox found that opportunities were closed to her in a male-dominated field, according to the University.

“Marilyn started her career during an extremely challenging time for female scientists, in a physical chemistry field, in which women were essentially absent,” said Gerald Fraser, chief of the Sensor Science Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Undeterred by these obstacles, Jacox  went on to become an internationally renowned leader in the field of molecular spectroscopy and enjoyed a long and successful career at the National Bureau of Standards, according to her obituary. Her research has garnered many awards over the years and remains a valuable reference for scientists today.

Yuan Pern Lee, of the Institute of Atomic and Molecular Sciences, said that when he worked with Jacox he was struck by her dedication and attention to detail.

“I was most impressed by her memory,” he said. “When we were discussing about a particular molecule, she always remembers what its vibrational frequencies are and who did what work and published in which journal.”

Lee also recalled Jacox encouraging young scientists at conferences, saying he was “deeply moved” to hear of her gift designed to assist female scientists at Cornell.

“I remembered vividly that during the conferences she always talked to young female scientists and guide them to improve their research, give her tips to overcome the obstacles,” he said.

Prof. Lester Andrews, chemistry, University of Virginia, said he would always send Jacox his papers to revise because “she probably knew more than anyone else.”

Fraser remembered Jacox as a dedicated worker, recounting a time when she tripped and broke her wrist, but appeared at work the next day as if nothing had happened.  He also pointed out that she continued to do research at NIST fulltime for nearly 20 years after her official retirement in 1996.

“She succeeded by doing careful, high-quality work, by choosing important problems in physical chemistry and by maintaining a high-level of productivity throughout her career,” he said. “She won her technical arguments, not by the loudness of her voice, but by her careful experiments and analyses.”       

Fraser said he believes Jacox saw the scholarship as a way to recognize the important role Cornell played in her career and encourage young female scientists engaged in similar ventures.

“Marilyn well recognized the challenges that female scientists experience in choosing a career in science, and likely hoped that her scholarship might remove one of the impediments for success,” he said.

Prof. Barbara Baird, chemistry, agreed, saying Jacox’s generous bequest to female undergraduate pursuing math and science shows that “this was her plan all along.”

“I think she pursued her career primarily for the rewards of doing good science that others could use and continue,” she said. “Then she could pass along a good part of her financial rewards so that other women scientists could have similar opportunities.”   

Baird said Cornell has made significant progress in its support of women scientists  since Jacox earned her Ph.D. degree in 1956; however, there are still challenges to be addressed.

“I hope that the young women who earn Jacox scholarships will read and think about her scientific journey, her scientific contributions, and her generosity towards others who are beginning their journeys,” she said. “I hope they also think about the challenges she faced and feel encouraged that they too can persevere.”

Sophia Lai ’17 is one of the students receiving Jacox’s scholarship. She is a chemistry major and is also pursuing a creative writing minor.

“I had not heard of Marilyn Jacox before the scholarship,” she said. “But I read about her personal life, and her philosophy was to always use her full name on publications so people knew she was a woman. I’ve never thought about it, but now that I do, I think it’s quite important to get your name out there in that way because people can get used to seeing female names on publications.”

While Lai said she has never personally experienced any bias in her science classes, she believes it is unfortunate that women are still a minority in STEM fields at Cornell.

“There is confirmation bias, some people see a female scientist who performs average and it just confirms their belief that men are better scientists than women,” she said. “The only way these problems can be solved is make STEM not as male-dominated.”   

Fraser said that with this gift, Jacox cements her position as an influential scientist, aiding both her contemporaries and future generations.

“Marilyn was extremely humble,” he said. “ For example, she wrote an autobiographical article for the 2010 issue of Annual Reviews of Physical Chemistry that she titled, ‘On Walking in the Footprints of Giants.’ She was one of those giants.”