Thursday, January 27, 2022

Person of the Week

Dr. Zuckerman Honored at Women of Innovation Awards for 60-Year Science Career

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After blazing the trail as one a woman studying sciences, Dr. Marie Zuckerman has spent the majority of her career working in her hometown of North Haven. 

Photo courtesy of Marie Zuckerman

After blazing the trail as one a woman studying sciences, Dr. Marie Zuckerman has spent the majority of her career working in her hometown of North Haven. (Photo courtesy of Marie Zuckerman)

For as long as she can remember, Marie Zuckerman has had an interest in math and science. While she didn’t realize it at the time, she blazed a trail for women in science as she earned advanced degrees and held a postdoctoral research position at Princeton. After teaching for a short time, Marie began her career in the lab, working for a number of companies that have all operated out of facilities in North Haven where she has lived since the mid-1970s.

On Oct. 14, Marie’s efforts were recognized as she was named winner in the Small/Medium Business Innovation and Leadership category of the 17th annual Women of Innovation Awards for her career in technology innovation now spanning 60 years. The awards are presented by the Connecticut Technology Council and the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, Inc.

“The recognition by the State of Connecticut is very fulfilling,” says Marie, who currently works for Precision Combustion Inc. (PCI). “[PCI President] Ken Burns called me in and said I’d been nominated, then I found out I was a finalist, and I felt extremely proud when I got the announcement I’d won. My parents would be extremely proud if thy were still here.”

Now 78 years old, Marie still extends much credit to her success back to her parents and their support and encouragement. Growing up in Patterson, New Jersey, in the 1940s and 1950s, she was introduced to advanced math at a young age by her father, Frank Francia, who was a mechanical engineer. He and her mother, Rose, encouraged Marie to pursue her passions and she became the first woman in their Italian-American family to go to college.

“Since age six, my dad supplemented my education and he believed that girls could do anything—he was a bit ahead of his time,” says Marie. “He believed women should go to college and become self-sufficient and though my mom was a homemaker, she fully supported girls doing anything they wanted. I had a very supportive family.”

While still in high school, Marie won the New Jersey State Science Fair in the mathematics category at age 16. Marie then not only went to college, graduating with a chemistry degree from Cornell in 1965, but carried on her education to earn a doctorate. The road wasn’t easy, though, and when she got to Cornell, Marie recalls being in the minority as a woman in the field of science. There were few women on the faculty throughout the college and no women teaching in sciences.

“There were no female role models or mentors to speak of,” says Marie. “My college advisor even told me that girls don’t finish chemistry, so I had to ignore that.”

As she finished her undergraduate degree, Marie wasn’t sure where her path would lead. She briefly considered becoming a high school teacher, but her father and a professor urged her to pursue graduate work.

In 1965, Marie headed to Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania where she “thoroughly enjoyed my time there.” Marie found that Penn was a “very welcoming place for women at a time when women weren’t really doing this.”

Marie earned her PhD after five years and then became one of the first women to be awarded a fellowship to do postdoctoral research at Princeton University in the early 1970s. After her postdoc work, Marie got the opportunity to get into the classroom, teaching at Barnard College of Columbia University in New York.

After a few years of teaching, Marie realized she wanted to return to the lab to do more research. She moved to Connecticut where her husband was working at Yale University, and in 1975, Marie took a position as a research scientist with the Upjohn Company, working in the Donald Gilmore Laboratory in her new hometown of North Haven where the couple raised their son, David.

Marie worked with Upjohn for 10 years and because it was “a small lab, there wasn’t a lot of ways to get promoted.” Marie decided to study patent law, taking the patent office bar exam, which is administered to scientists and attorneys. Passing the exam in 1984, Marie became a registered United States patent agent, able to perform patent filings and applications throughout the country.

Two years later, Dow Chemical purchased a section of the Gilmore Lab and Marie approached the new company. Dow offered her a job in the legal department and since 1986, she has been working in patent law.

“I talk to scientists about what they did, read what’s known in field, perform a legal analysis to see if what they did will satisfy patent laws, and if it’s patentable, I draft a specification, which gets filed with formal papers at patent office and go through the examination as to whether the technology is patentable,” says Marie. “Patent law has a very serious technical and scientific side to it.”

Though Dow left the site in 1989, Marie continued her work as a patent agent, operating an independent office. In 2001, she was rehired by Dow as a patent agent, working remotely from North Haven, filing patent cases throughout the United States and in 23 countries worldwide.

In 2009, Marie retired from Dow and joined PCI, working part-time for the company, which was named Connecticut’s 2020 fastest-growing tech company in energy, environment, and green technology.

“Working with PCI has been the icing on the cake as the technology is geared toward environmentally clean energy and green chemistry,” says Marie. “Dow was a very big company that gave me a tremendous background in patent law and exposure to chemical technology to PCI, which has a small but brilliant group of people doing very interesting work that’s very much needed.”

Burns has seen Marie’s contributions to his company firsthand, noting he is “extremely happy” about Marie’s recent award.

“She has become a key part of our team, continuing her lifetime of technology contributions,” says Burns. “Our focus is innovation and our business growth has been the result of the extraordinary members of our team working together and as individuals. With intelligence, skill, fundamental knowledge, and determination, Marie has contributed greatly to our development of new energy and environmental technologies. She has guided and motivated our inventors to bring out their best, and she has crafted and won award of the intellectual properties that today protect the innovations we are developing. She really has been a woman of innovation throughout her life, and we’re happy for her recognition as a category winner in the Small/Medium Business Innovation and Leadership category.”

Marie has seen her career come full circle as PCI occupies the same space as the Gilmore Laboratory did when she first started working in Connecticut in 1975. When looking back on her career, Marie realizes now that she could be seen as a pioneer as a woman in science, advancing through her career despite the challenges women in the workforces faced at the time.

While she is proud of that accomplishment, she is more proud about the “great progress” her generation saw in technology, medicine, computers, physics, and electronics and she hopes that future generations step up to do the same.

“Young people and however they identify themselves—nationality, race, religion, or gender—need to be bold and understand this nation absolutely needs scientists and engineers to solve serious technical problems,” says Marie. “We need leaders, the way we had through my generations, to step up and study science, be bold, make their contributions.

“We need a whole generation of young people to be bold, to say, ‘It’s going to be hard work but we have to do it for our nation and for ourselves.’ I’m a big proponent of pushing forward,” she says.


Jenn McCulloch is the Correspondent for Zip06. Email Jenn at .

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