Jeffries-El stands out in field of chemists

Kelly Madsen

Malika Jeffries-El, assistant professor of chemistry at Iowa State, is among the first class of chemists to receive the WCC Rising Star Award presented by the Women Chemists Committee of the American Chemical Society.

Jeffries-El was nominated and chosen based on her research accomplishments in plastic electronics. In March, Jeffries-El and the other inaugural WCC Rising Star Award recipients will be acknowledged during a symposium at a national ACS meeting in San Diego.

The WCC Rising Star Award recognizes the accomplishments of 10 exceptional mid-career women chemists and promotes retention for women in science careers. 

“There are more women chemists than there used to be, but not as many as there should be,” Jeffries-El said. “Awards like this help increase the visibility of women that are up-and-coming in chemistry.”

The ACS reported that in 2008, women earned 50 percent of the country’s bachelor’s degrees and 36 percent of its doctoral degrees in chemistry. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that although women make up 48 percent of the U.S. workforce, they hold 24 percent of science, technology, engineering and math jobs. 

“There is a significant drop-off between women studying sciences and women actually making science their career,” Jeffries-El said. “This award encourages women who have made it through school to keep going and working.”

Jeffries-El said role models and encouragement are critical for women in chemistry who may not work directly with leading women scientists.

WCC has become an advocate for women in science. Since 1927, the committee has provided resources, advisers and awards that highlight accomplishments of women chemists.

“WCC provides a huge entity of women with power who are pushing and lobbying for other women scientists and equality within the field,” Jeffries-El said.

In the classroom and lab Jeffries-El pushes her students, regardless of gender, to find opportunities in chemistry, through travel, grants or awards.

Brian Tlach, graduate in chemistry, has worked with Jeffries-El and said he believes her approach to motivating others is unparalleled.

“Malika is dedicated and truly selfless in professional advancement of her graduate students to make sure they are prepared and employed once they graduate,” Tlach said.

Many of her colleagues and students agreed with Tlach’s assessment.

“I am tuned into giving personal attention to my students,” Jeffries-El said.

Scott Meester, junior in chemical engineering, worked in Jeffries-El’s lab as a freshman through the First-Year Honors Mentor program.

Although he was doing basic lab work and had limited knowledge in advanced chemistry, Meester said Jeffries-El made sure he learned about chemistry in his experience.

“Malika made sure working in her lab gave me a head start in research — and it did,” Meester said.

Jeffries-El’s most recent recognition has benefitted her own career, she added.

“I was up for promotion this year, and it certainly didn’t hurt to have just won a national award,” she said. “It is always fun to be picked, especially when it is an honor like this.”

Jeffries-El plans to continue working with plastic electronics and further the application of her research.

“We are having some success in the research we are doing now, so we will continue down those routes,” she said. “But we want to pursue new areas within polymer chemistry.”

These areas include solar cells and light emitting diodes, which are important to research in environmental and sustainable practices, she said.

In addition, Jeffries-El said she is planning to work with high performance materials, specifically ballistic, next.