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As a young girl, Maria Dean loved learning about science and how living things functioned.
“We lived a block from the library while I was in elementary school and I made regular visits there and read fun books about science,” she said.
“I did kitchen experiments — thankfully my parents were tolerant — and presented my projects at school science fairs.”
By the time Dean reached high school, she was visiting with science teachers about more serious projects and knew she wanted to go to college to be a scientist.
She earned a college scholarship, but soon after arriving on campus she was met with her first bit of bias and discouragement.
“I was asked to give up my scholarship at the end of my first semester to ‘a young man who would eventually be supporting a family someday.’ That really crushed me,” Dean recalled.
“I was 17 years old and thought that I must not be worthy enough to go to college and study science.
“The chemistry professor who made the pronouncement was an accomplished person from the chemical industry who was spending his last years before retirement teaching at the college. He was white haired and vocal about what he thought women should be doing — getting married and having babies.”
Dean did leave college, got married and had children. But she didn’t stop there.
She then went back to college — with a full scholarship — to earn a BS and a PhD in chemistry. Next, she went on to do post-doctoral work in biochemistry and taught in a university research position for five years before finding her way to Coe College.
A faculty member at Coe for 27 years, Dean served as the Ben Peterson Professor of Chemistry. She taught biochemistry, general chemistry, nursing and food chemistry, and was an academic adviser.
“I did research with students during the summer, presented our research at conferences and encouraged students to find their passion,” she said.
In her role as professor, Dean said she enjoyed helping students make connections to a future career path, never discouraging them as she’d been discouraged early on in her career.
“A question I have asked Coe students through the years is, ‘Does this make you happy?’ If you have enjoyment in what you do, it will never be work. It never has been for me,” she said.
“Science is fun to learn about and great fun to do and share.”
One huge way that Dean shared that love of science was through her founding role in the Open Minds, Open Doors conference -- a partnership among Coe, Grant Wood Area Education Agency and the American Association of University Women to spread the word to seventh and eighth grade girls about the possibilities and fun to be had working in the STEM field.
Another HER honoree recently shared with Dean she had attended the Open Minds, Open Doors conference when she was in middle school and it led her down her current career path.
“It was quite moving to me to know that a program I inspired made a difference in someone's life,” Dean said.
“I am just having fun and want to share the experience with girls and young women. Sure, there is hard work involved in learning and preparing, but the doing is definitely fun.”
These days, Dean has stepped away from the classroom to care for her husband who is battling aggressive cancer.
“I really miss my interaction with students and the demonstrations and outreach activities,” she said, noting that COVID-19 made things more challenging.
“Teaching online is not the same as being in the classroom. It wasn't the best way to end my career. However, I made the decision to retire because with COVID life became complex ... .”
Whether inside or outside of the classroom, Dean still is encouraging others to inspire the next generation.
“The world seems so crazy and upside down these days, so I would encourage others to look for and share the best part of themselves,” she said.
“Our kids need to see the positive in themselves and others, and so do we. Even a small kindness can make a difference in someone's life.
“Be willing to share your passion with others and watch the change for the better.”
Once a month, Business 380 spotlights some of HER magazine's Women of Achievement, published by The Gazette. The awards were sponsored by Farmers State Bank.