Changing the World From Lab to Boardroom
Chemistry alum Judith Giordan, former Fortune 100 executive and 2023 American Chemical Society president, shares her story about what catalyzed her to pursue chemistry.
As a child growing up during the Cold War, Judith Giordan (Ph.D. ’80, chemistry) became accustomed to frequent ‘duck-and-cover’ drills at school. Each time she hid under a desk to protect herself, it reminded her that a nuclear attack could happen at any time.
As Giordan grew older, she watched from her home in New Jersey as the world around her was revolutionized by technological marvels and constant innovation. The haunting threat of nuclear warfare gradually faded away, but the memories of watching the space race and seeing old problems being solved by new scientific solutions stayed with her.
Those experiences caused her to realize that she wanted to someday change the world and address problems in that same way. And for her, that meant one thing: becoming a scientist.
Giordan, who is currently president-elect of the American Chemical Society (ACS) and will become its president in January, is internationally recognized for her achievements in industrial chemistry, chemical enterprise, leadership and sustainability. She authored over 200 articles on an extensive range of topics including entrepreneurship, intellectual property monetization, equity and diversity, polymer chemistry, flavor and fragrance technology, and electron spectroscopy. According to Giordan, much of her work is driven by her own personal journey to becoming a scientist—a path that has been both challenging and rewarding.
Originally, Giordan had plans to become a teacher like her mother, a nuclear physicist like the ones she admired while growing up or even a pharmacist. However, she didn’t feel like those ideas were the perfect fit for her. To find her true calling, Giordan spent her early semesters at college exploring different STEM fields. Eventually, she fell in love with chemistry and decided that it would be her path for the future.
Compared with her chemistry classmates at Douglass College and Rutgers University, she was late to the major after switching from pharmacy partway through the program. And although she ultimately earned her undergraduate degree in environmental science and vocational technical agriculture education, Giordan still wanted to pursue chemistry.
She took more courses but not all required for the major and felt discouraged by her lackluster GRE scores. So she took more chemistry courses and researched many graduate schools with prestigious and rigorous chemistry programs, but was particularly drawn to the University of Maryland’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and its offerings in nuclear and environmental chemistry—topics that hit very close to home. Giordan took a chance and applied, unsure if she would be summarily rejected.
Instead, to her surprise and joy, she was warmly welcomed.
“UMD believed in me when no one else did, and I’m grateful to the university for giving me an opportunity to prove myself,” Giordan said. “I’m also thankful because I met my dear late friend and advisor, Jack Moore, who really pushed me to accomplish what he believed I could achieve. There were times when I doubted myself, thinking that I would give up on my Ph.D. and just settle for a master’s degree, but Jack’s trust and belief in me got me through it all.”
Moore, who passed away in 2010, joined UMD as a professor of chemistry in 1969. Though his research focused on chemical physics and physical chemistry, he was a supporter of Giordan’s work in physical organic chemistry. In fact, Giordan credits him and his steadfast mentorship as major reasons for her decision to enter the corporate world after earning her Ph.D.
“I was told to apply to academic positions once I finished my program, but Jack was uniquely blunt about how he thought people could stand on their own. He said that I was really good at managing people and organizing things, so my future should also include those talents,” Giordan recalled. “And he was right. I went into industry instead and never looked back. I’ve loved every microsecond of it.”
After graduating from UMD, Giordan became a corporate trailblazer, serving in numerous executive and leadership roles with some of the world’s top multinational companies—including as the first woman executive in the German chemical industry when named vice president of R&D at the North American branch of the Henkel Corporation.
During her corporate career, she oversaw many scientific advancements, including instant photographic products at Polaroid, sustainable surfactants at Henkel, successful beverage lines at Pepsi, and memorable flavors and scents at International Flavors & Fragrances. For her leadership and research, she received the American Chemical Society’s Henry F. Whalen, Jr. Award for Excellence, which is awarded for outstanding contributions to the development and management of business within the chemical enterprise, and its Garvan-Olin Medal, which is awarded for distinguished scientific accomplishment, leadership and service to chemistry by women chemists.
These accomplishments cemented her belief that science and continuous innovation can overcome many of the world’s problems, from providing joy with instant photographs to promoting human health and well-being. In a career spanning over 40 years, Giordan achieved the goals she set for herself when she was just a young girl.
And she sees more opportunities on the horizon.
“How science is seen today is very different from when I was younger. The trust science and scientists have enjoyed over the years especially since World War II is waning. Now, the solutions generated by scientists can carry an aura of distrust for some members of the public,” she explained. “Scientists are human. We do our best to communicate, but trust in both science and scientists is needed for scientific solutions to truly manifest as solutions for all. And for that to happen, there has to be an ability and desire for scientists to engage in constructive dialogues with non-scientists and vice versa.”
Giordan now works to help the next generation of science leaders and innovators to succeed amidst a changing scientific landscape, just as her UMD advisor Moore did for her. To help achieve this, Giordan founded ecosVC a venture development and training company dedicated to coaching the next generation of STEM professionals, and co-founded the Chemical Angels Network to help promising startups thrive and innovate. She hopes that all STEM students and young professionals will think about their potential to make positive contributions to the planet and to society as they pursue their ambitions in science.
“The problems that we have on our planet are not simply problems for the planet,” Giordan said. “They are opportunities for all of us in STEM to address and to solve.”
The content of this article does not reflect the views or opinions of the American Chemical Society.
Written by Georgia Jiang