In Her Element: Meet the Black Woman Who Helped Discover Element 117 on the Periodic Table

This Black woman scientist played a crucial role on a team that left her out of the celebration of a successful discovery.

According to CNN, Clarice Phelps contributed to the discovery that filled in square 117 on the periodic table, creating tennesine (Ts), the second-heaviest known element on Earth.

The element, which needed to have 117 protons in its core, underwent a months-long process in the science lab where Phelps purified the element berkelium to create a film before it was “bombarded” with calcium by collaborators in Germany and Russia.

Named after its groundwork in Tennessee, the element was declared a success in 2012 and officially recognized as part of the periodic table of elements by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry four years after.

“For the first 18 years of my career, I was the only Black woman in my field. When I was in the Navy, I was the only Black girl in my division. Afterwards in my lab, I was the only Black woman in the whole facility–and initially they thought I was the janitor,” Phelps recalled.

“It’s isolating,” she added. “You feel like you have to represent your entire race and descend the racial stereotypes…especially in nuclear and radiochemistry.”

Phelps shared that she was left off the guest list for the lab’s gala celebrating the tennessine element. Even after a supervisor let her in, she found there was no place card with her name. In addition to that exclusion, Phelps’ name was omitted from the listed scientists on the plaque.

Reportedly, the lab corrected the error on the plaque that was dedicated to the contributing Oak Ridge National Laboratory staff.


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Phelps graduated with her bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Tennessee State University, enlisting in the U.S. Navy’s Nuclear Power School following graduation. She served as an engineering laboratory technician aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, and continues to use her career experiences as a board member and vice president of Yo-STEM, a non-profit that aims to bring STEM education to underserved communities.