Writer: Angel Mendez
Friday, June 29, 2018
Named after an early pioneer for women in science, the Velma C. Gunter-Landrum Endowed Scholarship at New Mexico State University serves female students carrying the torch to end underrepresentation in critical fields of discovery.
It all started in 1951 when Velma met Jerry Landrum in Fort Sumner in the seventh grade. By high school, they became sweethearts. A scholarship led both to NMSU where they pursued degrees in chemistry.
“She always reminded me that she was valedictorian of our high school class – not me,” said Jerry, who is a celebrated chemist for his co-discovery of two super heavy elements, 116 and 118.
In between their second and third year at NMSU, the two married. Soon after, financial burdens and a growing family prevented Velma from finishing her degree.
“Her professor, Mary Hope McDonald, saw great potential in Velma and was greatly disappointed when she married me,” Jerry said with a laugh. “But, Velma persevered and found success anyway.”
A few years and three sons later, Velma and Jerry landed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Velma led the radiation dosimetry lab that monitored personnel exposure to radiation while also taking classes at a junior college to finish an associate’s degree and earn a certificate in radiation technology. She later worked as a lab chemist who helped characterize and properly dispose of hazardous waste. After 25 years at the lab, Velma retired. Jerry said her one regret before she passed away in 2017 was not finishing her chemistry degree at NMSU.
“She always believed that, given the opportunity, women compete very well in the fields of science, and she proved that by finishing her career working as a professional chemist in a national laboratory,” Jerry said. “Sometimes, to get there, women don’t always have the financial wherewithal to finish – like her. This scholarship honors her memory by giving young women in science a helping hand.”
This “helping hand,” a new endowed scholarship started by Jerry during last November’s Giving Tuesday and matched by generous donors to the NMSU Foundation, is one that the NMSU Chemistry and Biochemistry Department Head William Quintana said creates significant opportunity to help retain current female students to the program.
“We do have a culture of celebrating women in our department,” Quintana said. “Even before I started here 27 years ago, a scholarship existed to honor the top woman of the undergraduate class. This scholarship only adds to our efforts to bring in competent and capable students. We are the trustees of Velma’s legacy, and we are proud to continue using her name to recognize our students’ accomplishments.”
Quintana illustrates the current outlook of the department as “unusual” in a positive way. Unlike many large universities, he says, women make up a significant portion of the department’s faculty at NMSU. All serve as mentors and role models to female students, but Quintana says there is still room to grow and help young women overcome the antiquated stereotypes.
“Whenever a donor partners with the NMSU Foundation to honor a loved one, we try to align our students’ biggest needs with the story of that person’s life,” said NMSU Foundation President Andrea Tawney. “We are honored and inspired by Velma’s legacy as a brilliant scholar, leader and trailblazer. Although progress has been made to eliminate underrepresentation in STEM fields, NMSU will continue to find ways to empower all Aggie students toward their dreams – no matter the barriers. Velma’s scholarship is one more tool to help us do that.”