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  • Writer's pictureEd Gaines

First Black Woman To Help Discover A New Element Now On The ‘Periodic Table'

Clarice Evone Salone Phelps, a nuclear chemist was part of the research team responsible for the discovery of a new element, 117 also known as tennessine.

Finding tennessine – element number 117 – helped a resurgence in elemental discovery that was once thought to have ended in the 20th century. 

Clarice Phelps was raised in the Edgehill Housing Projects in Nashville, Tennessee. Her interest in chemistry started during her childhood when she was given a microscope and encyclopedia-based science kit by her mother.

A violinist, Phelps began her interest in science early, including watching the American educational children’s television program, Beakman’s World. Her mother saw her interest in the natural sciences, she was given a microscope set retrieved from a garage sale and an encyclopedia-based science kit.

After graduating with a chemistry degree from Tennessee State University, Phelps joined the US Navy, where she helped maintain the chemistry and radiological controls of the two reactor plants onboard the aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). Phelps then went to work at ORNL as a nuclear operations technician at the Radiochemical Engineering  Development Center, processing and purifying mainline radio isotopes. Today she is a researcher and project manager for industrial use isotopes.

"For the first 18 years of my career, I was the only Black woman in my field. When I was in the Navy, I was the only Black girl in my division. Afterwards in my lab, I was the only Black woman in the whole facility -- and initially they thought I was the janitor," she told CNN, recalling requests to grab the trash.

Phelps is involved in several outreach projects to increase youth participation in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) recognizes her as the first African-American woman to be involved with the discovery of a chemical element.

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