Recently, we interviewed Clare Muhoro, Professor of Chemistry at Towson University. She received a Ph.D. in Organometallic Chemistry from Yale University in 1999. We spoke about her time at Yale, her vision for Africa’s future, her experiences being an African women in STEM and the importance of mentorship and representation.
Could you tell me about your time at Yale? Can you share a few memories that you think might encapsulate your experience?
Where to begin… I think of my time at Yale as being that very critical moment in my life—it was almost like there was a logarithmic change in many parts of my life. So, in one word, I would say it was fantastic.
I got my PhD in Chemistry at Yale in 1999. I worked with John Hartwig, an organometallic chemist, and when I joined his group, he was a young assistant professor working towards tenure. Joining the lab of a young academic was, at the same time, very exciting and super challenging because he was working towards tenure. He really kept me and my colleagues on our toes throughout our PhD. The experience gave me the opportunity to work on the frontlines of how to build a lab, write papers, apply to grants, and give presentations. I learnt how to do experiments directly from Professor Hartwig, which was fantastic. He taught me how to design and set up your experiments, how to use instrumentation, how to build equipment, how to service equipment, how to identify projects that would work smoothly and give you results. Looking back, it was really critical for me to be in that group. It was super stressful, as I said, because my advisor was a young assistant professor working towards tenure. But, also, it was transformative.
Then of course, there were my colleagues—the people that I worked with in the same group—as well as in other groups in chemistry. We are still friends today. As a community, we get together once in a while at professional meetings, and we support one another professionally. It has resulted, in 20-odd years later, in a nice network. So that’s sort of a summary of the science. And the science at Yale was, and continues to be, of course, world class.
The life outside of chemistry was equally wonderful because of what was on offer in New Haven—all the concerts at Woolsey Hall, the Drama Club, the Repertory Theater, the Yale Center for British Art, Toad’s Place. These are just some of the great things I enjoyed. There were all these events where world class musicians and artists would come through New Haven. I remember seeing Jessye Norman at Woolsey Hall, Yo Yo Ma and Midori. It was fantastic. And also free!
And then there were the African students! We got together across disciplines routinely. I think that allowed me to meet people, very easily, outside of chemistry. I had a ton of African friends—from the Law School, the Divinity School, from Yale College, from arts, history, economics… There was just a great group of people. I could go on and on.
Those six years, for me, were just magical. And the more time passes, the more magical it seems. I suppose there’s a bit of nostalgia at this point. But, it really was pivotal. I met my husband there as well! So, there was a lot that happened at Yale.
This is quite a broad question, but what are you passionate about?
I really think if you are able to really maximize your potential and grow your talents as much as you can and, by so doing, make the world a better place, then that is a life well lived. And to the extent that I can through teaching, administrative work and research, I try to do that with my students. I think that human potential continues to remain woefully untapped and there is a lot of room for people to make it easier for others to be able to maximize their potential. That is my passion. And it manifests in different ways in different lines of work that I am involved in.
What do you see on the horizon for Africa?
I’ve always thought that we are a continent whose time came and went at some point in history, but whose time is here again. About 10 or 15 years ago, The Economist published an edition of their magazine which focused on ‘Africa Rising’. It struck as me as completely out of touch; only now was this magazine recognizing what many of us have known about our continent. After years and years of casting us as the ‘The Dark Continent,’ focusing only on ‘mismanagement’, ‘corruption’, etc.—it seemed too little too late to say that Africa was now rising.
We from Africa know about the potential of the continent—we’ve lived it, we’ve seen it, we’ve heard stories from our grandparents and our parents. We know that we are a continent that has historically received the short end of the stick. And yes, there is a lot that we are responsible for, but at the same time there are global events that disproportionately impact African countries. If you just look at the current coronavirus pandemic and how it has negatively impacted economies around the world. The U.S. has a $2 trillion bail-out, but we know the stimuli packages for African countries will pale in comparison.
So, I think that despite setbacks, we are in what I think of as a slow-burn renaissance, because of our people and their potential. I think that the future is bright. We are told that by the middle of this century, one in four people will be African. There is a huge opportunity for us, and we as Africans know, there is promise and potential, So part of the passion that I have is directed towards that—seeing how we can position ourselves better. I’m not in government, I’m not a diplomat, but I can work in small ways where I am. By providing as much opportunity, and even just by pointing people to resources, we can slowly chip away at this thing. And we do have that youth dividend, which I think is a huge promise for us.
Could you talk a little bit about being an African woman in STEM?
I count myself very lucky because I worked on my PhD with the best of the best. Chemistry, and particularly organic chemistry is an extremely macho, white male field in the US. To get through the doctorate was very challenging for everyone, but I think more so for women and people of color. But, once I got through, I felt somewhat invincible. When I compared myself to other PhD graduate students from elite universities, I was as good or better. And that is because of the person that I worked with. So, I think I kind of lucked out in that I received training from Professor Hartwig and also because in his group , we just happened to be mostly women when I was starting off. Having friends in the same boat, like my great buddy Janis Louie now on the faculty and administration at the University of Utah, really helped. Just having this one friend really mattered. All this is to say that it is really important to have other women in your work community.
This translated to my first job as a professor. When I started my job at Towson University, there were no women in the chemistry department. I was hired along with one other woman, and over the years, we have grown to 60% female faculty in chemistry. That is due, in part, to having women involved in making hiring decisions.
Representation is important. We are doing better in terms of the number of women in our field. But in terms of diversity—not so much. It is very lonely. Who wants to be the only one? This is the reason that I co-founded a group for African women in academia—the Mentoring Network for African Women in Academia (MTAWA). We are a group of African women academics who are trying to support one another’s success and to mentor the next generation of women in academia. We have members from around the U.S. and several African countries. We’ve been involved in professional development workshops. The workshops that we offer are developed by the Committee for the Advancement of Women in Science, COACh for Scientists.
COACh for Scientists is an organization that supports the career success of women in science, predominantly, but also across other disciplines. Its founder is Geri Richmond, a world renowned, distinguished scientist and professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon. I’ve worked with Geri for many, many years, and I am on the board of COACh. COACh offers workshops on professional development in dozens of countries around the world. Now, around 20,000 people have taken the workshops, beginning in 1997. I started off taking these workshops myself—they were offered at American Chemical Society meetings. The workshops provide training in “soft skills” like having difficult conversations with colleagues, negotiating your academic startup package, launching your career—thinking about critical elements that are essential in moving forward. And these are the things that no one ever, outside of the voice in your head, will tell you are important. For example, should I take this job and lose proximity to my network of friends and family, or should I give it up and try to find something closer? Usually, people will tell you to take the job, but sometimes you have to weigh the non-tangible aspects equally, because they are the things that keep you going. Also thinking about ways to design your career, so that you are not always reactive, but so that you are intentional about the path you want to take.
I’ll give a quick example. When I finished my PhD, while I had really loved working in John’s group, I did not want to go for an R1 professorship because I needed to spend time every year in Kenya, just to recalibrate. But I would never have spoken that out loud to my PhD advisor because I felt that it wasn’t an important enough criteria for thinking about a career, compared to things like the prestige of the institution, the grad students, colleagues or instrumentation. But, for me, it became very clear that, because I come from a tight-knit family, I needed to go home every year, and not for just three days, but for a month. That would not have been possible for me if I had a job at an R1 instiution. So I decided to pursue a career at predominantly undergraduate institutions because of the flexibility not just with time but also with the areas of research one can pursue. So I have been fortunate to go home annually, see my family and also build collaborations in research. For instance, I merged research in the area of organic chemistry with work in environmental science and policy. I kind of took that and ran. I took chemistry students with me abroad—we went to Ecuador and Kenya to do fieldwork, and we published in this area. This work led us to asking questions about how science can be used to help communities which in turn landed me a position with the USAID as a Science and Technology Policy Fellow and later as a Science Advisor.
This trajectory brought me to my current position as director of competitive fellowships and awards at Towson University where I lead the university’s efforts to prepare and support students for competitive awards like Fulbright and Rhodes.
If you could pass on a piece of advice to current Yale students and alums, what would it be?
As a Yale alum or student, the hard part is almost done. Getting into Yale and graduating from Yale—that’s the hard part. The next thing is to build on your huge investment . The Yale degree opens doors. ; utilize that to go far then give back in whatever way, shape or form is available to you.
I also think that professional life can be fun. Find work that you enjoy and try and find happiness in it. Yes, there is a need for hard work in order to advance professionally. But also, there should be joy and positiveness to sustain you in your pursuits. I think a lot of the reward that can be found is being able to do good in the world around you. If you work hard, and you’re making a positive impact—that can be very rewarding.