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Wednesday’s Women in STEM: Stephanie Kwolek!

In this week's Wednesday’s Women in STEM, we will be featuring the astounding Stephanie Kwolek! Born in the Pittsburgh suburb of New Kensington, Pennsylvania, Kwolek had a keen interest in chemistry from her Naturalist father John Kwolek, who died when Stephanie was just 10 years old. As a child, she was bright and curious. She loved to explore the fields and woods around her home and made careful observations about the trees, wildflowers, and grasses that she found. Despite her childhood obstacles, she later on was able to put her passion to use and invented a useful material called Kevlar, a polymer fiber that is used most commonly to make lightweight body armor for police and military personnel. So how did she discover and invent this life-saving invention? Read on to find out!

Soon after graduating from Carnegie Mellon College with a degree in chemistry, Kwolek took a research position at DuPont in 1946 solely to earn money to attend medical school. After her interview at DuPont, the research director, W. Hale Church told Kwolek he would get back to her in two weeks. Kwolek then asked if he could speed up his accepting process because she had other awaiting offers. Church, impressed with her assertiveness, hired her right on the spot. This just shows how self-confidence is a real superpower! She was quick to fall in love with scientific research as her true passion and worked with many polymers, large molecules made up of many repeating units (plastics and rubber are two examples), trying to develop a lightweight yet strong polymer that could be made into a fiber. 

One of Kwolek’s experiments yielded an unexpected result. She assumed the chemical mixture would give her a substance like nylon polymer, a thick, clear liquid. Instead, she had a thin, cloudy mixture. Many people around her had told her that it wouldn’t work out. However, she didn’t give up and asked DuPont to continue to test this cloudy polymer solution.  What she found was amazing — these fibers, when lined up in parallel, had extremely high strength and stiffness.  This was the birth of Kevlar in 1965, a lightweight material that not even steel bullets could pass through. 

This invention helped so many lives in various ways. Kevlar helped evolve bulletproof vests, boats, airplanes, sporting equipment, ropes, and building materials.  Stephanie Kwolek once said, “I feel very lucky. So many people work all their lives and they don’t make a discovery that’s of benefit to other people.” Kwolek prioritized making a difference, rather than discovering various other substances. Her creativity and curiosity helped her imagine the impossible and she persisted and pushed her ideas when others said it wouldn’t work. That's what every girl in STEM should aim for. Making a difference. 

BY: Wafa Akbar

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