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(Send us your opinion today: Think of the various ways you can combine your hobbies and other interests into a possible career in science! Stephanie merged her love of chemistry with her penchant for textiles and fabrics — resulting in a life-saving invention! Tell us what you think about that!)
The next time you ride in a car, cross a suspension bridge, or wear a safety helmet or see a bullet-proof vest, think of chemist Stephanie Kwolek. Her scientific achievements are perfect examples of how chemistry plays a vital role each day in keeping us safe –even saving lives!
Why She’s Important: Working as a young scientist for the textile fibers lab at the DuPont Company in the 1960s, Stephanie — one of the country’s first women research chemists — invented an amazing synthetic material named Kevlar®. This fabric, derived from her research of long molecule chains (known as polymers) and made from aramid fibers, was found to be exceptionally light and five times stronger than steel, plus resistant to wear, corrosion and flames.
Other Achievements: Because of the remarkable qualities of Kevlar®, Stephanie’s invention is best known today as the material from which bullet-proof vests are firefighter suits are made — a use which alone has led to it saving thousands of lives. (For instance, a vest made out of seven layers of aramid fibers weighs 2.5 pounds, but it can deflect a knife blade and stop a .38-caliber bullet shot from 10 feet away.) Kevlar® is also used for such products as: spacecraft and airplane components, coats and dress shirts, military and safety helmets, suspension bridge cables, radial tires and brake pads, racing sails, hiking and camping gear, fiber optics and cut-resistant gloves.
Education: Degree in Chemistry from Margaret Morrison Carnegie College of Carnegie Mellon University in 1946. (The college was later merged entirely with Carnegie Mellon University).
In Her Own Words: Still amazed at how she discovered the fabric Kevlar®, Stephanie says: “I knew the direction in which to go, but I will tell you this: I never expected to get the properties I did the first time I spun it.” The discovery was “a case of serendipity,” she notes.
For more exciting stories on role models in science and engineering, visit the USA Science & Engineering website http://www.usasciencefestival.org/