Carol Parish is currently the Floyd D. and Elisabeth S. Gotttwald Chair and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Richmond. She received the Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Purdue University where she studied electronic structure theory with Cliff Dykstra. She was also a Fujitsu post-doctoral fellow in Clark Still’s laboratory at Columbia University and completed a sabbatical year in Roald Hoffmann’s group at Cornell. Her work investigates the fundamental molecular nature of a wide range of physical phenomenon ranging from the accurate characterization of diradical excited states to the dynamics of motor proteins. In the last nine years she has coauthored 18 research publications with her undergraduate students and raised over $1.8 million to support her research group from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund, and the Dreyfus Foundation including the receipt of a Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar award in 2005. Professor Parish has mentored 74 amazingly bright and hard-working undergraduates in her research. Her students have gone on to do great things including winning a Rhodes Scholarship, a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, a Department of Energy Fellowship, three ACS Scholar awards, a Fulbright Fellowship, a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) Fellowship and eight Goldwater Scholarships. Twenty-five of her students have pursued the Ph.D. in the chemical sciences and a similar number have gone on to high-quality medical schools. Women and other underrepresented students have worked with her in disproportionate numbers. She is a founding member of the MERCURY consortium (Molecular Educational Research Consortium in Undergraduate computational chemistry).
When and how did you first become interested in chemistry? Who or what helped nurture this interest?
I became interested in chemistry as a first year college student – I wanted to work for Estée Lauder and design new “reds.” The ability to do undergraduate research nurtured my interest and before long I was solving the Schrodinger equation for specific boundary conditions - and I realized that my skill set had evolved away from what cosmetics companies were looking for!
What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
Key experiences were many – starting a tenure track career at a small college in upstate New York (Hobart and William Smith Colleges), spending a sabbatical year with Roald Hoffmann at Cornell after receiving tenure, moving to the University of Richmond in 2005. And most importantly – interacting with so many bright and engaged undergraduate students over the last 15 years!
Who were your role models or mentors and how did they help you?
My husband is an experimental inorganic/polymer chemist and he has definitely been a terrifically positive role model and mentor throughout my independent professional career. We work in different areas of chemistry, but his support and understanding of my professional activities have been invaluable to me.
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 encounter surprises everyday! It has gotten easier over the years to roll with the unexpected using a combination of perseverance, humor and a good balance between my personal and professional experiences.
Why is your diversity volunteer role important to you? What benefits do you see, for yourself and for the students with whom you work?
I love working with undergraduates and it is particularly important to me to help ease the way for students typically underrepresented in the sciences. For undergraduates, the physical and mathematical nature of chemistry, along with the structural, 3D aspects of the field, make for a very challenging combination. If you also throw into that mix any worries about “fitting in” or “making the grade” - it is no wonder that we have a pipeline problem. Chemistry is a very dynamic, social science, and the profession needs people from diverse backgrounds to maintain that dynamicism.
What motivates you in your professional life? Outside of your professional life?
Success motivates me. Setting goals and achieving those goals makes me want to continue my work with students, in teaching and in research. The same is true in my personal life.
What advice would you give to young people from underrepresented backgrounds who are interested in a career in chemistry?
Just do it! Have faith in yourself and in your abilities. Everyone has to work hard at chemistry – but the rewards are great. Find a mentor, become a mentor. Work each day at improving your time management skills. Work hard but don’t forget to also play hard.