An Interview With Jennie Patrick

Over time, we have many life-altering experiences. My recent interview with Jennie Patrick, the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, was just such an experience. This pioneer discussed various aspects of her career and life experiences. She talked about her undergraduate years at the University of California, Berkeley, and the challenges she faced working in corporate America after earning her Ph.D. from MIT. Her strength, courage, and determination to succeed regardless of the circumstances are truly inspiring.

Patrick, an Alabama native, has enjoyed an outstanding career, during which she has held numerous positions in academia and industry. She is now retired and is focusing on issues relevant to minority scientists and engineers.

MiSciNet: Why did you become interested in science?

Patrick: My interest in science probably is a result of my personality. I have the tendency to want to understand why things happen the way they happen. Science is often the key to answering such questions.

MiSciNet: You earned your undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley). Did you ever wish you had attended a historically black college or university (HBCU)? Might your career have been different if you had?

Patrick: I did initially attend Tuskegee Institute. I transferred to UC Berkeley. I had a scholarship to Berkeley after high school, but my mother would not allow me to go. Instead, I went to Tuskegee, which was closer to home. The chemical engineering program at Tuskegee did not survive at the time. I made the decision to go where I always wanted to go: UC Berkeley. Attending UC Berkeley was very important in allowing me to understand that, as a young black woman, whatever I accomplished in life had to come from my own strength and determination. Such environments as Berkeley offered absolutely no support. In fact, the focus was to discourage and prevent you from being successful.

MiSciNet: Why did you pursue your doctorate from MIT? What was the climate like in that department? How did you keep yourself motivated?

Patrick: I selected MIT because of its reputation as being one of the best engineering schools in the country. MIT was a better environment for black students interested in science and engineering. Even though the numbers of black students were small in general, they were greater than at other institutions at that time. I enjoyed the intellectual challenge at MIT. Racism was present, but a little less severe than in Berkeley's environment. While I attended Berkeley in the early 1970s, I found it to be a horribly racist, in-your-face type of environment. This was especially so for students of color in engineering and science. I was motivated never to allow anyone to tell me what I was capable of. I was determined to follow my dreams no matter what happened around me. I have no knowledge about the current environment on the UC Berkeley campus.

MiSciNet: When you observe a younger person struggling with being the "first," what is your advice?

Patrick: Whether an individual is a first or is one of a few, it is important to stay focused on what it is that you wish to accomplish. It is important to always believe in yourself and not expect others to be your source of strength or encouragement.

MiSciNet: What advice would you give a person of color considering, or in the midst of, a doctoral program in science, mathematics, or engineering?

Patrick: I am sure things are somewhat different today on the surface. However, it is important to stay focused and understand that you must take full responsibility for your life and your future. Never depend on others to support or encourage you. Also, realize that the educational environments have the same social issues as the society. Never forget who you are. The people around you never forget.

MiSciNet: What is your greatest accomplishment?

Patrick: My greatest accomplishment in life is my capacity to unselfishly love others. I have made great sacrifices in life to take care of those whom I love. Life is about more than professional success. Good family and friends are priceless. Money and position cannot replace love, integrity, and honesty.

MiSciNet: Looking back over your education and career, what would you have done differently?

Patrick: Educationally, I probably should have earned a degree in business after engineering. As far as my career, I wish I had realized earlier, in more depth, that corporate America is not an honest environment. Also, I wish I understood more the physical and health dangers of the work environments. Your health and your life are your responsibility. Corporations only care that they get what they want from you. Your well-being is secondary to them. Your intellectual capability is of no meaningful importance to your success in most corporate environments.

MiSciNet: Lots of folks tell us that "science has no diversity," that rewards and success are based exclusively on merit. How do you respond to those who make this case?

Patrick: Clearly, people of color have often been cheated of recognition and their accomplishments in science and other intellectual endeavors. Those who control the reward-and-recognition process are still very much a product of this society and their environments. History has shown that African Americans have not been treated fairly in this society in many aspects. There is no reason to assume that science is immune to such injustices.

MiSciNet: Why is it important for minorities to pursue careers in science and engineering?

Patrick: I think it gives them insight and the opportunity to be in the wave of the future. If you are involved in the cutting edge of knowledge, you are professionally in demand. However, you also need to be aware of the physical and health dangers that can accompany such areas [of work].

MiSciNet: With all of your many accomplishments, how do you wish to be remembered?

Patrick: I wish to be remembered as a person who truly cares about other people. Life is really about our interactions with other people. Enhancing the quality of life of another individual is indeed a noteworthy accomplishment.

Sibrina Collins is the editor of MiSciNet. For further information, please e-mail her at

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers