Meet the Woman Who Just Changed the Periodic Table As You Know It

Looks like we all need to go back to chemistry class.
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Looks like we all need to go back to chemistry class.

We know women are largely underrepresented in the fields of science and technology, and all range of efforts are being made to change that. But one thing that certainly helps is to see mind-blowing accomplishments from those women who do work in science. Accomplishments like, say, discovering new elements for the Periodic Table, as a team led by chemist Dawn Shaughnessy recently did.

Shaughnessy tackles her intricate, advanced scientific work with a simple philosophy: “Innovation, to me, is finding a brand new way to solve a problem," she says in a YouTube video for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. "Problems don’t usually change that much, but it’s the way we go about doing things.” Shaughnessy’s approach to innovation certainly seems to be working; the team of chemists that she leads was credited with discovering three new scientific elements last week: Elements with atomic numbers 115, 117 and 118. A fourth element with atomic number 113 was discovered by a team of scientists at the Riken Institute, the first to be discovered by a group in Asia.

Since 1940, only 26 new elements have been added to the periodic table, and last week’s addition brings Shaughnessy’s team's contribution up to six of those. 

Scientists are continually experimenting in an effort to find an element or group of elements that are both stable and useful in practical applications. Along the way, some have discovered elements not previously encountered. Shaughnessy is the principal investigator for her California-based team, which collaborated with the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia on the discovery of the new elements. Classified as "superheavy"—the designation given to elements with more than 104 protons—the elements discovered last week were created by using particle accelerators to shoot beams of nuclei at other, heavier, target nuclei.

Shaughnessy, who is in her early forties, became interested in chemistry in high school and went on to receive both a B.S. and PhD in nuclear chemistry from UC Berkeley. She is the principle investigator at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is the namesake of one of the team's previously discovered elements, Livermorium (element 116), named in 2012. 

Perhaps contributing to the simplicity of Shaughnessy’s philosophy about innovation is her deep understanding of how limits, both metaphorical and scientific, can be examined and then reexamined. Her latest discoveries shed light on the latter. “These new elements help us understand the physics of how nuclei and elements are held together,” she says of her recent work. “Over the years, our theory of how the nucleus is held together has changed quite a bit, and every time we discover a new element it changes our understanding of these theories… it gives us insight into the extreme limits of matter and how matter assembles and holds together.”

Some of the newly discovered “superheavy” elements exist for less than a thousandth of a second. “A new element is created by fusing two lighter elements together,” she explains. “We don't see the actual element because it is too short-lived but we do see it’s radioactive decay particles and can then link those back to the original element we created.”

She credits technological advancements with making her discoveries possible. “These experiments were not possible many years ago; the technology in electronics and detectors have made this possible.”

Shaughnessy's group is actively involved in giving back to youth science programs, motivated in part by Shaughnessy’s experience as a student in poorly-equipped science classes. In 2012, the group received a $5,000 grant which they donated to the Livermore High School chemistry department. 

 We’re always champions for women who pursue their dreams and use their skills to contribute to their communities. Women have long been under-represented in the fields of science, even if it has gotten better in recent years. According to data from 2014, women make up only 39 percent of the field of chemistry of which Shaughnessy is a part. Her achievements in the field of chemistry make her a role model for aspiring scientists everywhere, and especially for girls who may be studying in ill-equipped science classes just like Shaughnessy did.

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