In March 1996, Stephanie Kwolek shared her experiences with middle school students in one of the Lemelson Center's Innovative Lives programs. "I did not start out to be a chemist. As a child, I thought that I might be a fashion designer. I spent an awful lot of time drawing various types of clothes and sewing," remembers Kwolek, the famous chemist in the previous story. Kwolek loved being outside as much as inside. She spent hours exploring the woods and creeks around her home with her brothers. Her father, who died when she was young, encouraged her to learn about nature by this first-hand experience. In school, Kwolek enjoyed her science and math classes. Her teachers encouraged her, helping her be a good student and talking to her about careers in science and chemistry. All of this was news to Kwolek, who had never heard of chemists or professional scientists. In high school, she decided she wanted to have a career in medicine, which meant going to college and then to medical school. As she explains, "I was always interested in science and mathematics. It was only natural I would go into some form of science."
Kwolek went to a women's college that was part of a much larger, all-men's university, as was common in those days. (Today, the two colleges are both part of the co-ed Carnegie Mellon University.) She liked meeting professors and fellow students who were women interested in science; she also took some courses in the men's college. After majoring in chemistry, Kwolek was still absolutely convinced she wanted to go to medical school. But, she had to make money in order to fulfill her dream. So, she interviewed for jobs at several research companies, including the DuPont company. The interviewer from DuPont told her she would know whether she got the job in a few weeks. Kwolek remembers this conversation: "I decided to be very bold, and I said, 'I wonder if you could tell me sooner, because I have some companies requesting that I give them an answer whether I will accept their offers or not.' And this was true!" On the spot, she got the job.
Kwolek loved her job in the Textile Lab at DuPont. "The first year, the work was so interesting and it was so challenging. I loved to solve problems, and it was a constant learning process. Each day there was something new, a new challenge, and I loved that." In fact, she says, "the problem was that I was so interested in chemistry and research that I totally forgot about medicine." While she had assumed she would work only for a few years until she could go to medical school, much to her surprise she ended up staying at DuPont until she retired.