Legacy of independence: CSU alumna earned Ph.D. as a single mother of two

Kathy Juneau and Jan Nerger, Dean of the College of Natural SciencesIn the late 1980s, the Chemistry Building was usually quiet on Sunday mornings. But one person you could reliably find there was Kathy Juneau, a Ph.D. candidate in the lab of Professor Louis Hegedus. “I would come in every Sunday morning, 7 a.m. to noon – because the kids were usually in bed, so I would get a lot done.” Not the “kids” she studied alongside (although she suspected they might be sleeping in after a night out) but her own children, then in middle and high school.

Now, Juneau is a retired senior staff scientist from Celanese chemical company where she helped create large quantities of Ibuprofen for BASF. But 30 years ago, she was a non-traditional Colorado State University graduate student and a single parent of two.

She had been working at Colorado State University’s Foothills campus, applying her double master’s in chemistry and mathematics from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, when her first child, Thor was born. Although she spent time during the day raising her kids (Kara would come three years later), she never stopped learning. She took evening classes at CSU in astronomy, zoology, science fiction writing – and even a roller skating class. But “I had always thought I would go back to chemistry to get a Ph.D.,” she says. “I wanted to be more independent – financially and in my education – after my divorce.”

So when Thor was 12 and Kara was nine, she started auditing chemistry classes to catch back up – and because, since her master’s in the 1960s, she says, “they had discovered some new things!”

In 1986, she was formally accepted into the doctoral program in the department. Excelling in a rigorous Ph.D. program and in single parent duties was not always easy. But she acknowledges her advisor Hegedus and Professor Frank Stermitz for being there to encourage and support her – and for understanding when she needed to zip out of the lab for a parent teacher conference or head home for a couple hours to have dinner with her kids (for which, she says, the conversation was usually more interesting than the food) before coming back to campus for an evening class. “Professor Hegedus and Professor Stermitz realized that raising kids was a difficult job,” she says.

She also credits her success to her children themselves (and to whom she dedicated her doctoral dissertation). “They just buckled down and did the job they needed to do, which was to go to school and focus on their academics,” she says. “Of course, they saw me studying all the time, so I guess when you do it instead of say it, there’s more of a force!”

It was her experience through those five Ph.D. years that inspired her to start the new Kathleen, Thor, and Kara Juneau Fellowship in Chemistry “to allow others to be independent in their science careers and in their finances,” she says. In particular, she hopes the fellowship will benefit women who are going back to school.

“It really surprised me that I had enough money to finance a fellowship for other people,” she says. Thanks to her dedication, more students will now be able to take advantage of this opportunity at CSU.