Meet Martha Milam, passing on her love for chemistry to the next generation!

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

I excelled in chemistry, and my mother’s work had proven that science was a profitable, secure career path. Most people thought chemistry was difficult, and knowing that I was competent in such a challenging subject gave me self-confidence.

Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to become a scientist?

My mother had the greatest impact on my career path. She originally pursued a nursing career but learned quickly that she loved the chemistry classes much more than the medical responsibilities. She earned her Master’s degree in the late 1960’s and worked for 25 years as a chemist for the Coca-Cola Company. She worked alongside several other women chemists, many of whom became her lifelong friends. Growing up, I considered it perfectly mainstream to for girls and women become scientists.

Martha with her mother/ Martha Milam

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?

Our team of chemistry teachers continually demonstrates how real people use science to design and create new products. Right now, the fields of nanotechnology and materials science are growing rapidly. We teach lessons in which students observe the behavior of everyday materials and explain those behaviors based on the nanoscience of the material. Students frequently draw particle diagrams (submicroscopic views) as a way to understand the chemical changes and properties of substances. In doing so, they better understand concepts like intermolecular forces, chemical bonding, and acid-base chemistry.

What are the hardest parts related to this work?

Students like Terrance encourage Martha and remind her that the work she does is important/Martha Milam

Teaching is always a challenge. First, my audience is comprised of teenagers. I love these kids because they make my job fun and always laugh at my jokes. Teenagers, however, can be emotional, moody, or lazy. Plus, they love their cell phones, social media, and Netflix. My thermodynamics lesson might not be as exciting in their world as their incoming Snapchat, so part of my job is convincing them that working hard is important to their future success. I never give up on encouraging the students to learn, and I am exhausted by the end of the school day.

What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?

I have former students who have graduated with degrees in chemistry, engineering, pre-medical studies, and environmental law. One of my students from the Dominican Republic is the first in his family to attend college, and he will soon be a forensic chemist. Next year, a former student will graduate with a degree in science & math education, and I am thrilled that she plans to work as a chemistry teacher! Finally, one of my recent AP chemistry students will graduate from East Coweta High School to attend Georgia Tech. She is planning to pursue a degree in chemical engineering, and I am especially proud that she is my daughter.

Martha with her daughter, one of her AP Chemistry students, and upcoming freshman at Georgia Tech/ Martha Milam

It is always disappointing when a student takes my class and then realizes how much he or she does NOT like chemistry. But, that doesn’t mean the class wasn’t a good learning experience. It’s valuable for students to learn what they DON’T want to do in college so they don’t waste time and money.

Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?

When I was in graduate school, I started in the Ph.D. program. Once I started on my research project in computational chemistry, I found that I didn’t really enjoy it. I couldn’t imagine working for two more years on the geometry-optimized minimum energy structures of the benzene dimer and its cation. So, I decided to write my Master’s thesis and start looking for a job. Although I knew I was capable of obtaining the Ph.D., I realized that my passion was not research science. Bored with my isolationist work in a basement computer lab, I decided I wanted a more social job. I wanted to talk to people all day. I considered pharmaceutical sales, although I didn’t particularly want to sell anything. It would take two more years to realize that becoming a chemistry teacher would enable me to fulfill my two career goals: doing chemistry and talking to people.

What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?

I can always count on my peers to lift me up when work gets tough, but teenagers are wonderful, too. They write me letters (the old-fashioned kind) that cheer me up, and I keep those notes tucked in various places in my house and classroom drawers to remind me of why I love teaching.

Martha with her colleagues/ Martha Milam

In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?

I hope that I have encouraged many people to become scientists, engineers, medical experts, and teachers. Because of Facebook and Instagram, I am able to see my students become successful and keep in touch with their college and career pursuits.

What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?

One time, I had a demonstration to show how thermometers work. I had two tall, skinny, open-ended tubes. One was filled with purple-colored isopropyl alcohol, and one contained green-colored water. The bases of the tubes were submerged in water being constantly heated on a hot plate. I was teaching the lesson and forgot about the demonstration behind me. Next thing you know, the students and I were sprayed with the liquid, and one of my students, a boisterous young man with a loud voice, hollered “HOLY MOTHER OF GOD!” As you can imagine, the hot water and alcohol had just spewed out of the top of the thermometers onto the ceiling, dripping onto all of us. We have laughed about that event many times, and I am always careful to watch the thermometer tubes more carefully.

Acid-base titrations in chemistry class/ Martha Milam

Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention? Which one?

The job of teaching chemistry is highly underrated. It is critical to our nation’s future that we have a workforce capable of doing high-quality math and science. In order to prepare the science and engineering workforce, we need high-quality teachers. These teachers need to hold a degree in science, but more importantly, they must be dedicated to teaching children. They must want to inspire students to pursue science, and they must be positive leaders in the classroom. I am happy to see that some colleges are now offering education degrees with a specialty in science and math education. All scientists can attribute their success to at least one specific teacher from their school days. As scientists, we need to remember that it is teachers who ignite the passion that leads the way to great scientific discoveries.

Do you come from an academic family?

My husband is a mechanical engineer, and we met at Georgia Tech while I was a graduate student. I sensed right away that he valued my decision to study chemistry, and he talks often about his own high school chemistry teacher. He is now an entrepreneur and operates his own porous plastic manufacturing business. He uses chemistry and materials science every day in his own work, and I am able to use his experiences to show my students how science is used in industry. Whether our children are with my husband or with me, they are always exposed to science. One day, my son was discouraged with school and all his homework. He complained to me, “I don’t need to know any of this stuff. I don’t need English or Spanish or social studies. It’s all useless. The only thing I need to know is chemistry.”

How does your family regard your career choice?

Martha with her husband Ken and three children, being her greatest support team/ Martha Milam

I come from a family who truly values education. Between my family and my husband’s, we have engineers, entrepreneurs, nurses, chemists, physicists, physical therapists, business executives and computer experts. Although I loved school, I didn’t consider teaching as a career because it wasn’t a job that I had ever seen in our family. Because education is important to my family, they have great respect for what I do. They remember the special teachers in their lives and know that my work is important. They know that I can inspire students to achieve their goals and seek rewarding careers.

Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?

I like to make photo books to document life events. I take plenty of photographs of my family and my classroom, so I try to organize the digital pictures often so they don’t become a messy jumble of files. I like photos of birthdays and holidays, but my favorites are those of the small, everyday moments, like pictures of the family watching television or playing with the dog. I also like to exercise, eat healthy, and stay fit. I can’t always get to the gym at the end of the work day, but walking my dog in the neighborhood invigorates me.

What is a typical day like for you?

A typical day of instruction: teaching gas law chemistry/ Martha Milam

After the morning rush of making breakfast and lunches, I take my youngest son to his middle school and then drive just a mile down the road to East Coweta High School. My older son and daughter attend school with me, which is a big campus with almost 3,000 students. My son is actually a student in my 2nd block chemistry class, and teaching him has become a fun adventure! In the morning, I plan the work day with my chemistry team colleagues. I have an hour and a half of planning time to get work done before the students arrive. Starting at 10:00 am, I teach three classes of approximately 30 students each. I explain concepts, work problems on the whiteboard, and show the necessary math. We do lab activities as often as possible, at least once a week. By the end of the school day, I have time to enter grades, set up or take down lab equipment, and write quizzes and lessons. I often take a bag home that is stuffed with papers to grade. At about 5:00, I leave work and come home to have dinner and family time.

Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?

Teaching is the best job I can imagine for a parent. I am completely in touch with what my children are doing throughout the day. Even when my kids are at a different school, we follow virtually the same daily routine and have the same vacation schedule. When a child is sick, it can become difficult because I need to find a substitute teacher. A substitute cannot truly replace the teacher, so it’s never easy to get the students back on track after an absence. My husband has a flexible schedule, however, and we work as a team to manage family events. We are fortunate to live and work within fifteen minutes from home, which makes life much easier for all of us.

Teaching in the outdoor classroom on a spring day. Using Lego models to illustrate single displacement reactions/ Martha Milam

What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?

Before I became a teacher, in the early 1990’s, I worked as a chemist at Michelin Tire Corporation. It was a manufacturing plant in southern Alabama, and I was the only female during my rotation in the engineering department. As a 24-year old single person, I was keenly aware that I was the only woman. I was a minority as a female, and although it was uncomfortable, I liked the role I served. I was a representative for women, and through my work, men could see that women were well-equipped to do science and engineering. I dressed in the same basic attire that everyone wore, acted professionally, and learned how to do my job well. Everyone treated me with respect. I didn’t look for any prejudice because nobody had ever treated me differently because I was a woman. I think that when women (or men) focus on their job and on having professional relationships, they generally find an atmosphere of mutual respect.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?

It is important that we seek out positive female role models who are scientists. I assign a project for my students in which they research a scientist who is either a female, a minority, or both. Many amazing scientists are white men, but we have plenty of great scientists who are female, African-American, Hispanic, or from non-white ethnic groups and cultures. Two of my favorite scientists are Lise Meitner and Percy Julian. Movies and books like Hidden Figures and Girls of the Atomic City inspire me because they show powerful, real female role models.

Do you have anything else that you’d like to tell us about?

Martha’s AP Chemistry class on Mole Day (October 23, a fun day of chemistry activities celebrating Avogadro’s Number)/ Martha Milam

Because I am both a scientist and a teacher, I am able to make a two-fold impact on my community. In the classroom, I have the amazing opportunity to form relationships with many students. After spending a semester or a year in my class, these students graduate from high school, go to college, and become members of our community. Once they leave my classroom, however, we still have a relationship and we have each learned something valuable. I learn life lessons from each of my students; they all have a unique story and a unique way of learning. All my teacher-student experiences help me to become a better teacher.

I also hope that my students carry with them the lessons I taught them, but I never know which bits and pieces of our classroom they will remember. I hope they retain some of the chemistry and know that science has a great impact on their everyday lives. If they don’t remember much about the science, then I hope they remember that education is important, that learning can be fun, and that being positive is a good way to live life.

Delivering a strong science background to the people in my community is a job I am happy to fulfill. Forming relationships with so many people across my community is a big responsibility and the most rewarding task I can imagine.


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