Connecting Across Generations: Pioneering Alumna Reaches Out to Current Graduate Students

July 1, 2015

“I see myself in the graduate students,” says Marie Francia Zuckerman, GR’70, who has given to Penn Arts and Sciences’ Graduate Fellowship Fund since 1977. “There’s no age barrier.”

Pushed by her father’s concern that she be self-sufficient, Zuckerman was the first woman in her family to go to college, and the first person to get a graduate degree. She studied chemistry at Cornell but found it “an unhelpful environment.” When she decided to go on to get her master’s degree, Penn offered her a teaching position in the labs, which let her earn her tuition and a stipend. “That’s how I ended up at Penn,” she says. “And I enjoyed every minute of it.”

When she arrived at the University in 1965, Zuckerman was one of only two women in Penn’s physical chemistry program, but everyone made her feel welcome. “Penn was ahead of its time in terms of accepting women in science. The professors gave us the same tasks that the men got, and told us to run with it,” she says. “It was very exciting, very research-oriented at a very high level.”

She stayed to get her doctorate, then went into industry research, but found she’d returned to a man’s world: “There really was a ceiling on my head.” She began studying patent law on her own, and passed the U.S. Patent Office’s bar exam to become a registered patent agent, drafting and prosecuting worldwide applications in chemical technologies. Since her retirement from Dow Chemical a few years ago, she’s working part-time for Precision Combustion, a small clean energy research company in Connecticut. “It’s more fun than retirement.”

Zuckerman says she’s lived “a remarkable life,” but worries about what will happen when the chemists in her generation retire. “The problems we’re working on are very real and need real people to solve them,” she says. “If we want to have an educated work force, people who are able to solve problems of the country or the world, we need to help the younger generation get there. Whether it’s financial or whether it’s a kind word, we need to help.”

Zuckerman knows that her annual gifts to the Graduate Fellowship Fund provide a reliable resource for Penn Arts and Sciences graduate students. And last year when she received a letter from Chris Jiminez, a doctoral candidate in English, thanking her for her donation, she wrote back, telling him “I can sense that you are highly engaged in your studies and future plans…You are going to do well in life!”

“I felt his letter shouldn’t go without a reply because he’s young and getting started,” she says. “He should have a few words of encouragement. Launching a career is hard work, and helping these students is something we all should do.”