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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Meet The Tennessee State University Alumna & First Black Woman To Discover A Periodic Table Element

Clarice Phelps is STILL in her element, and we LOVE to see it! The HBCU graduate of Tennessee State University made history in 2016 as the first Black woman to help discover an element on the periodic table. The element, now known as Tennessine (Ts), holds the number 117 and falls into the halogen category.

“Taking a seat at the periodic table didn’t happen overnight, it was actually a 20-year journey,” Phelps told News Channel 5.

Today, Phelps, now an engineer at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), continues to contribute to additional research efforts, including those of spectroscopic analysis and spectrophotometric valence state studies of plutonium-238 and neptunium-237 and 238 for the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA).

Phelps, who is from Nashville, started showing interest in chemistry at a young age. Her mother gifted her with a microscope and she often experimented with mixtures in their home’s kitchen during her childhood. She further developed her passion for science in chemistry class back in high school.

In 2003, Phelps earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Tennessee State University. Phelps then pursued a master’s in Nuclear and Radiation Engineering at UT Austin. She served in the Navy for 4 years, applying her chemistry knowledge to work with radioactive materials.

In 2016, Phelps received official confirmation that Tennessine was added to the periodic table. However, it wasn’t until 2019, when the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) recognized her, that she discovered she was the first Black woman to achieve such a historic feat.

“I had to Google it, and I still was in disbelief. However, I thought about me — as a little girl, desperately looking for someone like me in science who was an inspiration, and it changed my perspective,” she said.

Today, Phelps continues her journey at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where she works on purifying chemicals. These purified substances are shipped to Germany and Russia for use as target materials in producing atomic number 117 (Ts).

Phelps tells us that this process lays the foundation for her doctoral work at the University of Tennessee.

As a 4th year Ph.D. candidate in the Nuclear Engineering Department at the University of TN- Knoxville, my time is spent trying to complete research towards my Ph.D.,” she says.

“I am still a full-time researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and thankfully the research that I work on here is being applied towards my doctoral work. I am currently looking at alternative ways to perform solvent extraction experiments for rare isotopes that are used as power sources for nuclear batteries. These nuclear batteries can be used for medical imaging or powering equipment on spacecraft and vehicles, like the Mars rovers.”

“I am also spearheading an initiative to introduce the nuclear field to underserved people and communities as a viable career opportunity. In collaboration with Pellissippi State Community College and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, we recently began a Chemical Radiation Pathway which prepares students for careers in the nuclear field as entry-level technicians. This pathway has introduced 3 new courses for the college: Radiochemistry (which I teach),  Hazardous Waste Control (which is taught by two of my colleagues at ORNL), and an Analytical Chemistry course. Students will also do an internship at ORNL and shadow a technician and principal investigator as they do their research work.”

Currently pursuing her doctorate in Nuclear Engineering, Phelps remains hopeful that her discovery will positively impact the African American and other marginalized communities within the scientific field.

“Making these opportunities possible is my way of giving back – making opportunities where none existed, exposing systemically underrepresented communities to career possibilities (if allowed to experience them), and being genuine about what I have experienced when sharing my story.”

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