Esther Marley Conwell was born on May 23, 1922, in New York City, the oldest of three girls. She was raised by immigrant parents. Her father was a Russian photographer and her mother was an Austrian housewife. In high school she became interested in physics and went on to earn her B.S. in physics at Brooklyn College, thinking that she would become a physics teacher. However, one of her professors encouraged her to apply to graduate school to pursue research. She accepted a fellowship for a graduate program at the University of Rochester.
At Rochester, her thesis advisor, Victor Weisskopf, turned her on to how electrons move in semiconductors. She eventually developed what later became known as the Conwell-Weisskopf theory with her professor. The theory describes how impurities affect the transport of electrons in a semiconductor such as silicon. Called "impurity scattering," the behavior explains how electrons work in transistors (which would be invented several years after Conwell's theoretical work) and other semiconductor devices. The theory, and Conwell’s master's thesis, were classified during World War II, and only made public in the late 1940s.
Conwell later completed her Ph.D. in physics at the University of Chicago. She taught physics for several years before shifting to industry. As a rare woman in physics, she encountered extensive discrimination in both academia and industry. At an early-career engineering job at Western Electric, for example, she was told there was no official job category for a female assistant engineer, So she was classified as an engineer’s assistant, and received a corresponding downgrade in pay.
She later went to work for Bell Labs under William Shockley, one of the co-inventors (in 1947) of the transistor (Shockley would share the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work). While at Bell Labs, she shifted to researching charge transport and high-field transport for telecommunications labs. In 1972, she returned to Rochester, NY, to work for Xerox, where she researched integrated optics and properties of organic semiconductors, which are important in photocopiers and printers. She also returned to the classroom as a chemistry professor at the University of Rochester to teach chemistry.
Conwell was the recipient of many prestigious accolades later in life, not only for her contributions to semiconductor research, but also for her outstanding progress during a period when scientific and engineering opportunities for women were extremely rare. She was honored with memberships in three highly prestigious science organizations — the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Engineering. In 2002, she was named one of the Top 50 Women of Science by Discover magazine, and was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Barack Obama in 2010. Conwell was also the first woman to receive the Edison Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the most prestigious award given in North America in the fields of electronics and electrical engineering.
She spent much of her life mentoring young women scientists and encouraging them to pursue degrees in STEM. She continued to publish research until she died at age 92.
— By Alexandria Curtwright