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First Black Woman to Discover an Element

Black women make up only 2% of the STEM workforce, but that didn’t stop Clarice Phelps from going after her dreams of becoming a scientist. Phelps overcame racism and sexism to become the first Black woman to help discover an element on the periodic table. Element 117 had been left blank for years as scientists struggled to create an element with the precise properties needed to fill the slot. Phelps worked in a lab for months to create atoms with exactly 117 protons, the amount required for the undiscovered element. Element 117, which was named “tennessine”, was officially added to the periodic table. The laboratory where the element was created made a plaque to honor the scientists who contributed to the discovery, but left Phelps’ name off of it. Phelps successfully got her name added to the plaque, and the event inspired her to fight for other Black women in STEM who don’t get the recognition they deserve. Now, Phelps uses her platform to inspire girls in underserved communities to pursue careers in STEM, hoping to make the industry more inclusive.

Image via Calvin Mattheis / USA TODAY

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