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Madeleine Jacobs
Madeleine Jacobs

Madeleine is president and CEO of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents and former CEO of the American Chemical Society.

Early Inspiration

Born in Washington, D.C., Madeleine is the daughter of a concert bassoonist and a stay-at -home mother. As her childhood coincided with the beginning of the international space race, Madeleine remembers science being portrayed as a noble calling. The effect that Sputnik’s mission had on the United States education system meant this was a time of improved resources for science and mathematics. Combining this with two inspirational teachers, Mr. Bernard Stockton who taught 8th grade science and Mr. John Nelson who taught 11th grade advanced placement chemistry, Madeleine was well positioned to go on to pursue a career in science. 

She was awarded a full scholarship for her bachelor of science degree at George Washington University, where the trend of strong educators continued. This, united with her innate interest in chemistry, resulted in complete enjoyment of her university experience. 

“I loved university – I’m a classic nerd so I can’t recall any challenges.”

Whilst by her own admission she flourished in her studies, Madeleine does recollect some difficult mathematics during physical chemistry undergraduate studies and quantum mechanics in graduate school– difficulties that she is very grateful to have had support from her first husband to resolve.  

Communication, Communication, Communication

It wasn’t just the sciences that Madeleine was passionate about, however, and following a year of graduate studies she applied for a job at Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN). Here she was able to share her love of the written word as she explored, among other topics, themes of gender equality in the chemical sciences. This early role in journalism is what Madeleine believes would have led to her alternate career had she not been so passionate about science. 

“As my career probably implies, if I hadn’t been involved in chemistry, I would have been a journalist or a writer. For much of my career, I was able to combine chemistry and science in general with writing.”

After this early stint at C&EN, she held a number of science writing and communication roles before her career took her to the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Public Affairs. During the 14 years she spent there, Madeleine launched and wrote for a popular news service for daily and weekly newspapers about research at the Smithsonian. She also endeavoured to attract diverse audiences to the Smithsonian. Her efforts developing outreach programmes that reached underrepresented communities earned her the Smithsonian’s Secretary’s Gold Medal for Exceptional Service. 

Her departure from the Smithsonian took Madeleine back to C&EN as managing editor. The next 21 years of Madeleine’s career were spent at the American Chemical Society (ACS), becoming C&EN’s editor-in-chief and then the first female and first person without a PhD to become chief executive officer.

“These positions enabled me to stay abreast of the latest discoveries in chemistry and communicate them to a broader audience. I always say that my primary job was making sure that I created an environment that would allow smart people to do their best work. Like a conductor in an orchestra, a leader’s job is to bring out the best in them.”

As had been the trend with her previous roles, Madeleine advocated for inclusion and diversity within the sciences throughout her time at the ACS. She proudly notes the work that the ACS performs to advance women in science; Project SEED, which sparks an interest in science among economically disadvantaged youth, and the ACS Scholars Program, which supports outstanding students from underrepresented groups to access higher education in the chemical sciences. Acknowledging that change in these areas can take some time, Madeleine believes that when beginning any widening participation programme, these simple guiding principles will lead to success:

“They have to start early, in elementary school, and they have to be consistent and continual.”

Almost 50 years have passed since Madeleine received her undergraduate degree and in that time the landscape of chemistry has changed significantly. Interfaces between the sciences are blurred and on a daily basis brave new scientific worlds are encountered. When working with scientists operating at these frontiers, Madeleine finds her curiosity and love of discovery fuelled. Since her retirement from the ACS in February 2015, Madeleine has become president and CEO of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents. Her many years of leadership at the forefront of the chemical sciences combined with her enthusiasm of working with a wide variety of scientific disciplines have resulted in her becoming an advocate in this role for all sciences. 

Love affairs and Cole Porter

Looking back at her varied career, Madeleine shares some thoughts for those who are just starting out:

“I have had what many people call a ‘non-traditional’ or ‘alternative’ career in the chemical sciences - and it has been exceptionally rewarding. For young people starting out, remember that a career is like a love affair:  it has its ups and downs but overall it must be rich and rewarding, it must be bursting with promises and possibilities, or why bother? Fortunately, there is a cornucopia of careers for people educated in the chemical sciences—I’m living proof of that. I guess I would advise people to follow Cole Porter’s advice and ‘Experiment… make it your motto day and night; experiment, and it will lead you to the light.’ The rest of that song is just as witty!”

Words by Madeleine Jacobs and Gareth Davies
Images courtesy of Peter Cutts
Published February 2016

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