March 2016 Articles

GSAS: A Woman of Firsts

The best advice Marjorie Caserio, M.A. ’51, Ph.D. ’56, ever received was that when you come up against a brick wall, instead of beating your head against it, find a way around it.

UC Irvine’s first female faculty member, Marjorie Caserio, in her chemistry lab, 1965. Image courtesy Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

UC Irvine’s first female faculty member, Marjorie Caserio, in her chemistry lab, 1965. Image courtesy Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Bryn Mawr proved to be the way around one of the first brick walls she encountered. For a young woman in post-World War II England, vocational opportunities were limited and cultural expectations narrow. The only woman in her class at Chelsea College, and hoping to major in chemistry, she was discouraged from pursuing science because it was “too difficult” for girls. Still, Caserio persisted and, on graduating, won a scholarship through the English-Speaking Union that would send her to Bryn Mawr for her master’s degree.

“I immediately felt welcomed at Bryn Mawr,” Caserio says. “To come from the austerity of wartime Britain to the College’s pastoral campus and to be among so many smart, interesting women was eye-opening. I felt encouraged by not having to conform.” She was equally captivated with the chemistry faculty. In particular the department chair, Ernst Berliner, was instrumental in fueling her growing love for organic chemistry.

Caserio’s year at Bryn Mawr was transformational, but on returning home to England she found the same walls in place. Without her own source of funding, graduate education opportunities were closed. Her only job prospect was doing metallurgical research at the rural Fulmer Research Institute. Isolated professionally and socially, Caserio dreamed of returning to Bryn Mawr. “I can also directly trace my misery, in part, to the bicycle that was my only mode of transportation,” she says.

Bryn Mawr welcomed her back to study for her Ph.D. in chemistry. “What I remember most about those years is the encouragement of faculty and peers,” she says. “There was great support for student ambition. We were expected to succeed but not pressured.” Caserio also traces her love of teaching to these years. “The size and excellence of the faculty meant that mentoring was individualized and special. We were never looked down upon but instead received constructive encouragement.”

Her Ph.D. in hand, Caserio found that the work world of that era was not particularly welcoming. A recruiter from DuPont told her that the company didn’t hire women Ph.D.s because it was assumed they couldn’t physically handle equipment such as glass cylinders. Initially, academia didn’t seem receptive either. “I approached my alma mater, Chelsea College, about teaching opportunities but was told there were too few opportunities even for men,” Caserios says.

The California Institute of Technology offered Caserio a solution. John D. Roberts, recently hired away from MIT, had insisted that CalTech welcome his graduate students regardless of gender. Caserio benefited from this change even as CalTech had no female undergraduate students or female faculty. Still, her years there were productive and happy. “I spent eight years collaborating with Roberts on research as well as co-authoring an organic chemistry textbook with him,” Caserio says. “I am quite proud of how influential that textbook turned out to be, and I am sure that it is one of the reasons I was recruited to the University of California, Irvine.”

UC Irvine was a new university, and Caserio only the second faculty member in chemistry hired—and the first woman. She remembers, “I was hired by future Nobel Laureate and department chair F. Sherwood ‘Sherry’ Rowland and appreciated his desire to assemble a talented and first-rank department.” Caserio focused her research there on organic reaction mechanisms and organosulfur reactions, particularly in the application of stereochemistry and nuclear magnetic and ion cyclotron resonance.

Even as her work flourished—a full professorship in 1972, a distinguished teaching award in 1974, the American Chemical Society’s Garvan Medal, and a Guggenheim Fellowship both in 1975—Caserio was keenly aware that she was the only tenure-track female in her department for all of her 25 years there.

In her subsequent roles of department chair at UC Irvine and then vice chancellor and interim chancellor at the University of California San Diego, she worked to lower the walls that women encounter. Today, UC Irvine’s chemistry department includes 12 women faculty, eight of whom are tenure-track. Caserio says that one of the joys of her time at UC San Diego was the opportunity to “influence the paucity of women faculty and women administrators.”

Looking back over her long career, Caserio reflects: “While it may seem that one person alone can’t bring about change, one should never stop working to encourage it. Bryn Mawr taught me to be more than what was expected of me and to be even more than I expected of myself.”