Donna Nelson is a talented organic chemist in her own right, but she is better known for drawing evidence-backed attention to the lack of gender and ethnic diversity among faculty in top science departments through her Nelson Diversity Surveys. If one looked, it has always been clear to see that this underrepresentation exists and, thanks to Nelson, we now have statistics to point to to back us up and help us improve the situation.
Nelson was born and raised in Eufaula, Oklahoma, the heart of the Muscogee Creek Nation. She studied chemistry at the University of Oklahoma and went on to receive a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin followed by post-doctoral research at Purdue University before returning to the University of Oklahoma as a faculty member (the only woman (not to mention, mother) and Native American in her department) in 1983, where she is currently a Professor of Chemistry.
Her organic chemistry research has included work on single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs). She developed a way to apply a common technique called nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) to study how these molecules react with other molecules. To further advance her research, she worked as a visiting scholar at MIT and in 2016, she served as President of the American Chemical Society (ACS)
She also collaborated with Native American tribes to address diabetes in their communities and is active with SACNAS (the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science).
Nelson wants to make sure that the science people see is always right – whether it be in a textbook (she has led missions to fix undergraduate organic chemistry textbook errors) or on TV – she served as a science advisor for Breaking Bad.
Beginning in the early 2000s, she conducted what came to be known as the Nelson Diversity Surveys – a comprehensive look at diversity among tenured and tenure-track faculty in the science departments of “top” (in terms of federal funding) science departments. These were the first national surveys of this kind and while the picture she found was often grim, these surveys have provided valuable evidence to back up pushes for increased diversity. The surveys have been frequently cited, and its data has even been used by the US’ Government Accountability Office with regards to Title IX.
Data have been collected in 2002, 2005, 2007, and 2012 and can be found here: http://drdonnajnelson.oucreate.com//diversity/top50.html
In addition to some pushback from people happy with the status quo, her work has earned
her a Woman of Courage Award from the National Organization for Women.