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 doctoral research all over again on a different project with a different advisor. Then, one week after Meyer's untimely death, Dembe was sexually assaulted during the night in her off-campus apartment.
For three months she waited for direction in how to progress, but eventually, she left UChicago with a master’s degree. She then taught chemistry for decades at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California, becoming 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.”