A young woman leaves New York to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at a small Virginia women’s college in the 1950s. After graduate school, she becomes a revered electron microscopist – but not without the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated field. Consequently, she spends her life helping female students at her alma mater advance their own careers and pursue their scientific passions.
It sounds like Lessons in Chemistry, the popular Apple+ miniseries based on the novel by Bonnie Garmus, chronicling the life of a female chemist challenging the status quo in the mid-20th century.
Yet, it’s the true story of Irene Piscopo Rodgers ’59. She and other Mary Washington alumnae – such as Anne Hope Scott ’59, Jerri Barden Perkins ’61 and Marilyn Shull Black ’69 – made scientific breakthroughs while breaking through the glass ceiling.
“These women overcame obstacles at a time when there were few women in STEM and found success in their fields,” said Vice President for Advancement and Alumni Engagement Katie Turcotte. “We are so thankful to them and others who continue to invest in their alma mater so that students today can achieve their goals, just as they did.”
On Feb. 11’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science, UMW recognizes alumnae who have established or contributed toward scholarships and other awards in the sciences. A total of 21 graduates have given $10,000 or more to STEM areas over the years, all of them women. Nearly $43 million has been made in gifts and pledges to designations in the sciences by alumni, friends and families, mostly in the last decade.
Rodgers left the University of Mary Washington a transformational $30 million gift – the largest in the institution’s history – when she passed away in 2022. Her generous bequest will exponentially grow UMW’s undergraduate scientific research program and create four new Alvey Scholarships, providing full tuition, fees, and room and board for out-of-state students, adding to the eight Rodgers created in her lifetime.
The first of these four new scholarships will be awarded this spring to an incoming first-year student who wishes to pursue studies in biology, chemistry, physics, Earth and environmental science, mathematics or computer science. Recipients will be notified by April 1, 2024, and students are encouraged to apply for admission as the first step. UMW also offers in-state full-ride scholarships for Virginia students, with more than 90 majors, minors and programs to choose from.
Current students can apply for scholarships now, with the application open Feb. 1 through May 15.
In addition, the University recently recognized a decades-long commitment by Anne Hope Scott, who made a provision in her estate plan in 1988 to fund the Anne Hope Scott ’59 Scholarship in Chemistry. A former teacher, Scott, who also passed away in 2022, spent 34 years as a chemist and consumer safety officer with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Rodgers had often said that Mary Washington had “opened worlds” for her, so she wanted to do the same for students like senior Sofia Taylor, an Alvey Scholarship recipient with whom she corresponded regularly through cards and letters.
Taylor had the opportunity to thank her late donor one last time in a video that premiered at UMW’s annual Celebration of Giving dinner in December.
“I hope you know that everything I’m doing here at UMW was made possible because of your generosity,” said Taylor, a psychology major and music and neuroscience minor. “I will continue to make you proud as a woman in STEM and sing your praises for all past and future Alvey Scholars to hear.”
With a storied career as a chemist, physician, researcher and author, Jerri Barden Perkins, MD, credits her start to the $100 scholarship she received at Mary Washington when she was a student. “This is my way of paying it forward for future generations.”
She was also honored in the video by one of her recipients, Harrison Miles ’15, ’23, who returned to UMW to earn a post-baccalaureate degree in conservation biology. Miles earned the John C. and Jerri Barden Perkins ’61 College of Arts and Sciences Student Research Fellowship at last year’s Summer Science Institute for his research using fungus extracted from the invasive spotted lantern fly.
“Without the scientific background and support of my Mary Washington professors, I could not have achieved my goals,” said Dr. Perkins, who faced gender bias in medical school and throughout her career. She later trained at the National Institutes of Health, where she made groundbreaking discoveries into rheumatoid arthritis, and worked at the FDA, where she recommended the first therapy to treat AIDS patients.
Docia Atanda ’23, also featured in the video, said that receiving the Bernard L. Mahoney Jr. Student Research Fellowship from Marilyn Shull Black meant that she could continue her research with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Sarah Smith ’12. Both Atanda and Smith also received awards from Rodgers when they were students.
Now pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Maryland, Atanda said she hopes to use her science education to contribute to the greater good just like Black, who spent her career studying indoor air quality and its impact on children’s health.
“Dr. Black, thank you for believing in the power of education and investing in students like me,” Atanda said. “Your support has changed my life and enabled me and other Mary Washington students to pursue our dreams and make a difference in the world.”
Find scholarship opportunities that are available to UMW students. Learn more about establishing scholarships and how private support makes a difference in the lives of UMW students who receive scholarships, research fellowships and internship grants. The Office of University Advancement can explain naming and customized giving options. Call 540-654-1024 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.