Clarice Phelps: The First African-American Woman Involved With The Discovery Of Any Chemical Element

Clarice Phelps

Clarice Evone Phelps is an American nuclear chemist researching the processing of radioactive transuranic elements at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge. She was formerly in the US Navy Nuclear Power Programme and at the same time also managed programmes which were organized at ORNL in the department of Energy’s Isotope & Fuel Cycle Technology Division investigating industrial uses of nickel-63 and selenium-75.

Phelps was brought up in Tennessee, United States. She grew an interest in chemistry as a kid when her mother gifted her a microscope and encyclopedia-based science kit.

She earned a BSc degree in Chemistry from Tennessee State University in 2003 and later completed her M.S in Mechanical Engineering through the nuclear and radiochemistry programme at the University of Texas at Austin and became a PhD student in the nuclear engineering program at the University of Tennessee.

Phelps struggled academically in college and hence was unable to find employment after graduating and joining the United States Navy. There she served as a non-commissioned officer in the United States Navy Nuclear Power Program. She spent almost four years aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, operating the nuclear reactor and steam generator chemistry controls, and maintaining the water in the reactor. She was deployed twice and was the only black woman in her division on the ship.

After serving in the US Navy, Phelps worked at a chemical instrument company in Chicago for a year and then joined Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a technician and was later promoted to research associate and programme manager. Phelps works in the Nuclear Science and Engineering Directorate as the project manager for the nickel-63 and selenium-75 industrial isotope programmes.

Early on Phelps was also involved in the discovery of the second-heaviest known element, tennessine. She was part of a three-month process to purify 22 mg of berkelium-249, which was shipped to the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research and combined with calcium-48 in a fusion reaction to create tennessine.

In IUPAC crediting Oak Ridge laboratory collectively as principal co-discoverer of tennessine, it acknowledged 61 individuals at ORNL who had contributed to the project where Phelps was recognized as the first African-American woman involved with the discovery of a chemical element.

Apart from that, Phelps is involved in several outreach projects to increase youth participation in the fields of STEM. She serves on ORNL’s Educational Outreach Committee as its diversity chair for Knox County Schools. She has also done outreach through the ASCEND programme of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority’s graduate chapter, establishing a programme to teach robotics, drones, circuitry, and coding to inner-city high school students in Knoxville.

Phelps was featured on the Oak Ridge Associated Universities STEM stories programme and received the 2017 YWCA Knoxville Tribute to Women Award in the category Technology, Research, and Innovation. This award recognizes “local women who lead their fields in technology and excel in community service”.

In 2019, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) featured Phelps in the Periodic Table of Younger Chemists in recognition of “her outstanding commitment to research and public engagement, as well as being an important advocate for diversity”. 

At the December 6, 2019 TEDxNashvilleWomen, Phelps presented the talk “How I Claimed a Seat at the Periodic Table”, where, according to TED Talks, she “debunked the myth of solitary genius and challenge[d] institutional elitism by sharing stories of women of colour making their way in science”.