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Monday, February 12, 2024

Meet the First Black Woman to Discover an Element on the Periodic Table

Clarice Phelps

Nationwide — Meet Clarice Phelps, an HBCU graduate of Tennessee State University who, in 2022, made history as the first African American woman to contribute to the discovery of an element on the periodic table. The element, now known as Tennessine (Ts), holds the number 117 and falls into the halogen category.

“Taking a seat at the periodic table didn’t happen overnight, it was actually a 20-year journey,” Phelps said, according to News Channel 5.

Phelps, who is from Nashville, started showing interest in chemistry at a young age. Her mother gifted her with a microscope and she often experimented with mixtures in their home’s kitchen during her childhood. She further developed her passion for science in chemistry class back in high school.

In 2003, Phelps earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Tennessee State University. Phelps then pursued a master’s in Nuclear and Radiation Engineering at UT Austin. She served in the Navy for 4 years, applying her chemistry knowledge to work with radioactive materials.

Her journey continued at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where she worked on purifying chemicals. These purified substances were shipped to Germany and Russia for use as target materials in producing atomic number 117 (Ts).

In 2016, Phelps received official confirmation that Tennessine was added to the periodic table. However, it wasn’t until 2019, when the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) recognized her, that she discovered she was the first Black woman to achieve such a historic feat.

“I had to Google it, and I still was in disbelief. However, I thought about me — as a little girl, desperately looking for someone like me in science who was an inspiration, and it changed my perspective,” she said.

Currently pursuing her doctorate in Nuclear Engineering, Phelps remains hopeful that her discovery will positively impact the African American and other marginalized communities within the scientific field.

CORRECTION: Previously, this article said that Phelps was the first Black woman to contribute to the discovery of an element on the periodic table. This has been changed to say she is the first African American woman.