Clarice Phelps

Clarice Evone Phelps (née Salone) is an American nuclear chemist researching the processing of radioactive transuranic elements at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). She was part of ORNL’s team that collaborated with the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research to discover tennessine (element 117). The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) recognizes her as the first African-American woman to be involved with the discovery of a chemical element.

Phelps was formerly in the US Navy Nuclear Power Program. At ORNL, Phelps manages programs in the Department of Energy’s Isotope & Fuel Cycle Technology Division investigating industrial uses of nickel-63 and selenium-75.

Clarice Phelps, who was raised in Tennessee, United States became interested in chemistry during her childhood when she was given a microscope and encyclopedia-based science kit by her mother. Her interest was further nurtured by her secondary school science teachers. Although Phelps completed a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from Tennessee State University in 2003, Phelps struggled academically in college. Unable to find employment after graduating, she joined the United States Navy. There, Phelps enrolled in the Navy’s Nuclear Power School, which she credits with teaching her “how to study.” Phelps studied nuclear power, reactor theory, and thermodynamics and graduated in the top 10% of her class of 300–400 students. In 2019, Phelps told an interviewer that she pursued nuclear chemistry in part because of the lack of black women in the field, commenting: “They needed to see somebody like me sitting in the same spaces that they were at, and excelling in that same space.”

Phelps served as a non-commissioned officer in the United States Navy Nuclear Power Program. She spent four and a half years aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, operating the nuclear reactor and steam generator chemistry controls, and maintaining the water in the reactor. She was deployed twice and was the only black woman in her division on the ship.

After serving in the US Navy, Phelps first worked at chemical instrument company in Chicago, Illinois, but a year later she returned to Tennessee. In June 2009, Phelps joined Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She started as a technician and was later promoted to research associate and program manager. Phelps works in the Nuclear Science and Engineering Directorate as the project manager for the nickel-63 and selenium-75 industrial isotope programs. As a member of Oak Ridge’s Nuclear Materials Processing Group, she is part of the research and development staff, working with “super heavy” transuranic isotopes that are produced mainly by nuclear transmutation. She is also a member of the Medical, Industrial and Research Isotopes Group, where she researches elements such as actinium, lanthanum, europium, and samarium.

Phelps was involved in the discovery of the second-heaviest known element, tennessine (element 117). She was part of a three-month process to purify 22 mg of berkelium-249, which was shipped to the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research and combined with calcium-48 in a fusion reaction to create tennessine. In IUPAC’s crediting Oak Ridge laboratory collectively as principal co-discoverer of tennessine, it acknowledged 61 individuals at ORNL who had contributed to the project including members of operations staff, support personnel, and researchers such as Phelps. It recognized Phelps as the first African-American woman involved with the discovery of a chemical element.

Phelps has contributed to additional research efforts, including those of spectroscopic analysis and spectrophotometric valence state studies of plutonium-238 and neptunium-237 and 238 for the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA). Phelps has also studied electrodeposition with californium-252 for the Californium Rare Isotope Breeder Upgrade project.

From 2016 to 2020, Phelps earned a M.S. in Mechanical Engineering through the nuclear and radiochemistry program at the University of Texas at Austin. As of 2021, Phelps is a Ph.D. student in the nuclear engineering program at University of Tennessee.