- Feature Stories
- News Flash
- Inspire Innovation
Cover Story: Legacy of Distinction« Back to Page 2
The History Makers
Even Alex Trebek knows her name
At different points in her life, Stephanie Kwolek wanted to be a fashion designer and a doctor. Ultimately, her career had elements of both: she invented a fiber used in clothing that saves lives.
A 1946 Margaret Morrison chemistry major, Kwolek went to work for DuPont. One day in 1965 she was dissolving a polymer, patiently trying solvent after solvent. Nothing worked—so she tried a solvent not normally used. It produced a thin, cloudy liquid that behaved differently from any other;when Kwolek tried to shake it off the spatula, it held together.
She had to work hard to persuade her male colleagues to run the liquid through a spinneret, a device that forces dissolved polymers through tiny holes, extruding stringlike fibers. To everyone’s surprise, the fiber from Kwolek’s liquid couldn’t be broken. This was something altogether new—and astonishingly strong.
A DuPont team developed the new fiber into Kevlar, which of course is the fabric used in bulletproof vests. Kwolek smiles as she recalls being at the White House in 1996 to receive the National Medal of Technology: she was treated indifferently by security forces until someone recognized her name. Suddenly, she was surrounded by guards and police clamoring to tell her how her invention had kept them safe.
Kwolek believes that Kevlar probably couldn’t even be invented today, because corporate America focuses more on near-term profits than on longer-term outcomes. “Productive research requires an investment of time and money,” she says. “It’s not like inventing a gadget in your garage.”
Today, Kevlar has more than 200 applications, and Stephanie Kwolek’s name appears on 17 patents. She has received innumerable awards and honors, and has even been an answer to a question on the popular game show Jeopardy. Retired since 1986, she spends much of her time working with professional associations and responding to mail from current and future scientists.
The Great Idea Finder
Meet Stephanie Kwolek
POSITIONED TO CONQUER ARTHRITIS
Work could revolutionize treatment
The work of one Carnegie Mellon alumna may soon help reverse or even prevent the crippling effects of osteoarthritis.
Jennifer Hartt Elisseeff, a 1994 Mellon College of Science chemistry major, is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and orthopedic surgery at Johns Hopkins University. Her pioneering work there involves developing materials for regenerative medicine—replacements or supplements for the human body’s own tissues.
One project involves a method of replacing cartilage, the tough elastic-like substance that is eroded in arthritic joints, leaving bones to grind painfully against each other. (Cartilage doesn’t regenerate naturally.) Elisseeff injects a stem cell-filled liquid polymer into the damaged area and then solidifies the gel, which acts as a “bio-scaffold” in which the stem cells multiply and produce new cartilage. One day patients may be able to donate their own stem cells for the procedure.
Elisseeff’s own company, Cartilix, is working on something for the nearer term: using biomaterials to promote healthy new cartilage. “The goal is to treat cartilage loss early to prevent progression to arthritis,” she says. The work draws acclaim and attention. For example, “Technology Review” named Elisseeff one of the country’s top innovators under age 35.
One of Elisseeff’s long-term goals is to become involved in science policy. She explains why: “The U.S. has had a unique leadership role in translating science because basic research has provided the ability to innovate, to produce new ideas that bring practical benefits. But basic research is a major investment, and it seems we’re not making enough of that investment these days. We may not see the consequences in the near term, but we will in the longer term. This is a science policy issue.”
Despite a daunting schedule, Elisseeff makes time to encourage young people toward careers in science and engineering. She says, “These are viable and exciting careers, but people still have the stereotypical image of the scientist working alone in the corner of a room. We scientists and engineers need to come out more and talk about our work and our lives.”