This Chemist Has 109 Patents

    Edith Flanigen has been inventing for more than 50 years

    If you use gasoline, you’ve benefited from chemist Edith Flanigen’s work. 

    Amongst her 109 patents, Edith has worked on synthetically manufactured molecular sieves, also known as zeolites. They are porous crystals capable of separating and purifying complex chemical mixtures and enhancing chemical reactions for oil refining and petrochemical manufacturing. She also invented a process to synthetically manufacture gem-quality emeralds.

    Edith has received numerous honors – she was the first woman to be awarded the Perkin Medal in 1998, America’s top honor in applied chemistry and she received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2014. 

    She began her career at Union Carbide in 1952 and currently works as a consultant at Honeywell UOP. We called Edith at her office in White Plains, New York, for some advice. 

    How did you get into chemistry? 

    It went back to high school, when I had an excellent chemistry teacher and she was one who insisted on hands-on, even in high school. Subsequently in college, I went to a small women’s college in Buffalo – D’Youville College – an excellent chemistry teacher there also instilled it in me. 

    Why science? 

    An innate curiosity about anything! What interested me in chemistry – is that you were making something, creating a new material. In terms of the overall purpose that I had throughout my career, it was trying to discover or invent new materials. 

    Where did you get it from? 

    It came mainly from my father, who had insatiable curiosity about everything. He was a salesperson for a lumber company – he had all sorts of interesting hobbies on the side. 

    As a woman, were you outnumbered? 

    Surprisingly in [the lab at Union Carbide], there were an unusual number of women, compared to that era elsewhere. While I was at that division, two [of my] sisters joined the same laboratory doing research. 

    What’s your work like today as a consultant at Honeywell UOP? 

    I interact, usually one-on-one with the people in the new materials group in the research department. They’re continuing to do what I used to do. I find it very interesting and offer opinions and comments on what they’re doing. Hopefully positively, but not always. I also have library access to journals – I want to keep up in the field.

    What inspires you? 

    Being successful and discovering new materials, along with my coworkers. 

    What advice would you give girls who want to follow in your footsteps? 

    Look for mentors, I had a couple of good ones early in my career. And master the skills of writing, communicating and working in teams. 

    What do you do for balance? 

    I’m quite active in my church – I do quite a bit of participation in liturgy. I’m a Eucharistic Minister (one who assists in giving out communion at Mass) and Lector (does the reading of the Epistles). I go every day. Until recently, I was pretty active in sports, I was a tennis player. I still keep up with regular exercise in a gym. It’s critical.