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President of Imperial College London to Give ARROWS Lecture

A Checklist for Women in STEM will be delivered by chemical engineering scholar Alice Gast


Alice Gast’s fascination with chemistry—in particular the behavior of colloidal suspensions—began when she was a small child in California concocting dirt soup in her front yard. “You had to have the right dirt and the right additives—various leaves and flowers and berries and things,” says Gast, who on Thursday will deliver Boston University’s fourth annual ARROWS (Advance, Recruit, Retain, and Organize Women in STEM) lecture, A Checklist for Women in STEM, celebrating women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The event will be held in the Metcalf Trustee Ballroom from 4 to 5:30 pm and will be followed by a reception. It is open to everyone.

That childhood fascination carried Gast to international renown as a chemical engineering scholar, and her intellect and leadership led her to the position of president of Imperial College London. The college’s first female president, Gast had previously been president of Lehigh University, vice president and associate provost for research at MIT, where she held the Robert T. Haslam Chair in Chemical Engineering, and a professor at Stanford University. She was appointed a US science envoy to the Caucasus and Central Asia in 2010. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering, among many other honors.

“She’s a rock star in science and a leader in higher education,” says Joyce Wong, a College of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering, and the inaugural director of ARROWS. “She’s an amazing role model.”

Gast is the coauthor of the textbook Physical Chemistry of Surfaces, which Wong says she has used in her teaching. “It’s a classic,” she says.

Gast’s lecture is “an opportunity not only to celebrate women in STEM,” Wong says, “but also to bring the community together—to include all voices—and to talk about the kinds of issues women in STEM still face.”

The mission of ARROWS, according to its website, is “to organize, align, and vertically integrate programs created to advance women throughout the STEM community at BU.”

A checklist for women in STEM event poster

Gast graduated from the University of Southern California in 1980 as class valedictorian, but as a doctoral student in chemical engineering at Princeton, she says, she struggled to find her footing.

“I had the very traumatic experience of changing PhD topics,” she recalled during her 2016 Athena Lecture, a talk sponsored by Imperial College that honors the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and medicine and is given each year by a prominent female scientist. “We had a large incoming class of PhD students, and I was very intimidated by some of my classmates.”

When it came to selecting a PhD project and faculty advisor, Gast said, “I didn’t make the best choice.”

In the end, she found the right project, and coadvisors. It was, she said, a lesson in “learning how to have confidence in yourself and make the right decisions.”

She graduated from Princeton in 1984 and went on to Stanford, where she was a faculty member from 1985 to 2001, when she moved to MIT. She was president of Lehigh University from 2006 to 2014.

As president of Imperial College, Gast has been outspoken on the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration among scientists from different backgrounds—and protecting those collaborations as Britain exits from the European Union. “We remain firm in our position that we are a European University and we will vigorously defend our international community and international values,” she said during her 2018 president’s address.

“I truly believe we do better science when we collaborate with people who’ve grown up in different situations than us,” Gast said in her Athena lecture.

“We’ve all learned the same physics and chemistry—the science is in some sense the same the world over—but we look at it differently.”

Alice Gast will deliver the fourth annual ARROWS Lecture Thursday, May 10, in the Metcalf Trustee Ballroom, ninth floor, One Silber Way. The event, which is open to everyone, is from 4 to 5:30 pm, and will be followed by a reception.

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Sara Rimer, Senior Writer and Director, Research Communications at Boston University
Sara Rimer

Sara Rimer can be reached at srimer@bu.edu.

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