Remembering Stephanie Kwolek, the Woman Behind Kevlar

As I sat on my couch reading my weekly Chemical and Engineering News magazine that I receive as a member of American Chemical Society, I turned a page to find an obituary for Stephanie Kwolek. Somehow I had missed the news from regular sources. I have never met her in my life but I felt a connection with her; I saw her as a role model for me, considering I am following a career path she mastered. She was a great woman of science who invented one of the most important polymers created in the last century. And she did it when there were very few women working in the field of polymers, let alone science in general.

Many of us may not know what Kevlar is or why it is so important; But all of us have used, touched, felt or at least heard about something made from it. Kevlar is the trade name of a liquid crystalline polymer, aramid to be specific, with extremely high strength and stiffness (yes, they are distinct terms!) and thermal stability, manufactured by DuPont. It is used for numerous applications requiring high performance materials like tire cords, parachutes, electronics, automobiles, even fibre optic cable to name a few; but it is probably most recognized for use in body armor or bullet proof vests for the military. While she wasn’t directly involved in the development of applications for her invention, she gave the world a material that in some way changed it for the better. She had not known that her invention would one day manifest as a protective guard for our troops in the form of body armor and save their lives. The applications of this exceptional polymer are constantly being further developed even today, as others try to come up with new polymers with competing properties. For her invention of Kevlar, Stephanie was honored with numerous awards, some of which she became the first woman to receive.

Any aspiring young woman scientist can learn a lot from Stephanie’s career graph. One thing I admire about her is that she loved what she did and she came in and conquered a male dominated field. Even today, as I look around, there aren’t as many women in engineering and material science when compared to the number of their male counterparts. I can only imagine that to work in a field that has historically been known to be a male domain, a woman must have felt like a fish out of water. But to take on such a job and to be extremely good at it is something to be proud of and what can aspire many others to venture in similar direction. But something else that I think, everyone can take a lesson from is her attention to detail. Kevlar was discovered because Stephanie decided to analyze the polymer’s sudden drop in viscosity with increasing concentration in solution, a point where others might have discarded that solution deeming it useless. Sometimes while experimenting, seeing something ‘weird’ is not the end but the start of a project, you just have to be attentive enough to recognize it; and Stephanie surely mastered that quality.

I have no information about her personal life but from what I hear, Stephanie was a fun-loving and enthusiastic person. I am sure she had fun doing what she did for her day job and it was probably her passion for her work that infused  a zeal in her life outside of work. All young scientists can learn  a lesson about dedication and passion for your chosen scientific field from the life of Stephanie Kwolek. Girls in particular can find a role model in Stephanie, the woman who invented Kevlar and unknowingly saved the precious lives of numerous soldiers around the globe.

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