University grants long-delayed doctoral degree to Cheryl Sundari Dembe

Innovative chemistry research from 1970s receives recognition after disruption due to gender discrimination

Forty-eight years after leaving the University of Chicago, Cheryl Dembe will walk at Convocation ceremonies in June after earning her doctorate in Chemistry.

Receiving the degree, which she was months away from completing in 1971 before leaving due to gender discrimination, has renewed her sense of self-worth, Dembe said.

“My experience with the University has given me hope for the resolution of issues in ways that allow us to honor and support each other,” she said. “It has made such a huge difference in the way I view my own life, in thinking of myself as someone who didn’t make it, to someone who did—and who always did make it.”

Dembe received her doctorate in August after a faculty committee reviewed her research work focusing on Helium-3 and Helium-4 cooled to temperatures approaching absolute zero, a universal limit. She will return to campus with her family for Convocation weekend.

“What I hope people hear from this is not to give up in their own paths and journeys in life—and the importance of respectful persevering,” Dembe said.

In 1971, Dembe was nearing completion of her PhD when her research adviser, Prof. Lothar Meyer, died unexpectedly. Dembe said she was unable to find a new advisor because of gender discrimination; other professors would not work with a female student, and the only option she was given was to start her doctorate all over again.

Instead, Dembe left UChicago with a master’s degree and taught chemistry for decades at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California. She became its first female chair of the Department of Chemistry and first female head of its Division of Physical Science and Engineering.

Dembe had largely put the question of the lost degree behind her until one day, while reading research on sabbatical, she came across an article on the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physics. The prize was awarded for research from the early 1970s that bore similarities to the work Dembe had done at UChicago around the same time. Dembe said she tried reaching the University in 2000 about revisiting the issue of her degree and received no answer.

In 2018 she wrote again, and connected with Vice Provost Jason Merchant. He saw that Dembe’s case raised important issues and involved improper behavior toward a student, warranting a thorough review by faculty and outreach from the University’s Title IX Coordinator to offer additional support.

“We offer our heartfelt congratulations to Cheryl Dembe on her academic work, as well as her inspiring persistence in pursuing the degree that her scholarly work has earned,” Merchant said. “It’s clear that she did not receive the support that all students should expect when she was here, and the University sincerely regrets the treatment she received and the decades it has taken to rectify the effects of that mistreatment. We are very pleased to be able to recognize, albeit belatedly, her academic accomplishments now.”

Dembe’s research work was reviewed by a committee made up of faculty from the Department of Chemistry. Members reviewed hundreds of pages of notebooks and documents from Dembe’s time at the University to understand her research achievements.

Dembe’s work focused on isotopes of liquid helium cooled to just barely above absolute zero. When she shot particles through the system, tiny vortices would form with interesting behaviors that can tell scientists about the fundamental properties of how particles interact with each other. For example, the energies of the vortices were “quantized”—always one of a set of specific numbers, never any value in between. Studying these interactions provides insights into quantum mechanics, the rules that govern how the smallest particles in the universe interact.

Along the way Dembe invented a stable way to hold the helium system at an extremely low temperature, as well as an ingenious method to measure the temperature inside the cell by wrapping two coils around a magnetic salt placed in the system and measuring the current that flowed through, which was proportionate to the temperature inside.

The Nobel Prize from 1996 was awarded for the discovery of a phenomenon called superfluidity, performed by a team at Cornell University in the early 1970s in a system very similar to the one Dembe was working with. The faculty members who reviewed her work said that although no one can know how far Dembe might have developed the approach if her program had continued, the work she did was innovative and original, and warranted the granting of her PhD.

“Cheryl’s scientific research was of a very high caliber, and I am deeply grateful that we can recognize her achievements. I want to thank Cheryl for her determination in the face of deeply unfair and unfortunate obstacles. Her degree should be an inspiration to students and scientists alike. I would also like to express my gratitude to the faculty committee for its thoughtful work,” said Angela Olinto, dean of UChicago’s Division of Physical Sciences.

Dembe will fly to Chicago in June for Convocation to be recognized with all of this year’s other graduates. Both of her children, as well as relatives from across the country, will attend.

“I am profoundly grateful to the University, its president and all involved in my resolution process, for treating my request with such respect and care, and for the bravery, creativity and flexibility shown in stepping in to remedy what never should have occurred,” Dembe said.

“There’s a ripple that goes out in the world when we do things like that, which is far bigger than you would ever guess,” she said. “There is potential for healing beyond myself with this story.”

Now retired from teaching, Dembe said she is not done with science or chemistry. She wrote and published her memoir, The Choice of Happiness, Glimpses from an Extraordinary Ordinary Scientific Mystical Life, by Sundari Dembe, her nom de plume, and there’s still research she would like to pursue.

“Now that I’ve finished my career, and have my doctorate, I can start my life anew,” she said.