Listen to Victoria’s Discussion with Joyce, Rene, and Jennifer Here:

Reflecting on what sparked their interest in chemistry and led them to a career in the chemical industry, Chemical Educational Foundation (CEF) board members, Joyce Marshall Johnson of Univar Solutions, Rene Whigham of Olin Corporation, and Jennifer Jewson of LyondellBasell, join host Victoria Meyer to discuss their diverse journeys into the chemical industry, the importance of engaging students early in STEM fields, and the impact of CEF’s “You Be the Chemist Challenge.” Highlighting the significance of mentorship, fosters an insightful conversation about diversifying the chemical workforce, and emphasizes the crucial role of early education in inspiring future generations to pursue careers in chemistry and STEM.

** We invite you to join the 20th Annual You Be The Chemical Celebration on June 9 & 10 in Houston, Texas.   Learn more and purchase your tickets here: CEF You Be The Chemist **

Find out more about these topics: 

  • How 3 senior leaders created careers in chemicals
  • The critical role of MENTORS
  • Career opportunities: NOT just about engineering and chemistry
  • The important role of early engagement in chemistry and STEM education
  • CEF’s You Be The Chemist Challenge


Killer quote:Tomorrow’s workforce is incredibly important now, more than ever. We have to invest in tomorrow’s workforce. We won’t be successful without it.” – Jennifer Jewson


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Watch Victoria and the Women of CEF Discuss the You Be The Chemist Challenge on Youtube Here:

Pathways to Chemical Careers for Women, Introducing You Be The Chemist! Challenge

Hi, this is Victoria Meyer. Welcome back to The Chemical Show, where chemicals means business. Today, I’m bringing you a unique episode that we’re recording during Women’s History Month, and we’re showcasing CEF, the Chemical Educational Foundation, and three of their female board members, Jennifer Jewson from Lyondell Basell. Joyce Marshall Johnson from Univar Solutions and Rene Whigham from Olin. So we’re going to be talking about careers in chemicals, the importance of engaging students and especially girls early in their academic careers and then also wrapping in a discussion about CEF’s You Be the Chemist challenge, which is reaching its 20th anniversary this year with a big celebration in Houston in June. So we’ll be talking about that and more. Ladies, welcome to The Chemical Show.

Joyce Marshall Johnson: Thank you.

So, I’m going to start with, what sparked your interest in chemistry and led to a career in chemicals because you’ve all reached and developed some great careers in this industry. It’s always interesting how we got here. Jen, let’s start with you.

Jennifer Jewson: I’m a chemist and I worked in catalyst design. So I worked in organic chemistry. As a young girl, I always love math and science. Nobody in my family is a math and science person, so I’m very unique. But I think the great thing about that is, I just had great support from my family. Then the reason I really love CEF is, it’s always the engagement of a teacher that really helps to spark what you want to do.

Jennifer Jewson: When I got to college, I had a fantastic advisor that really encouraged me, not just to get a 4 year degree, but go even beyond that to get a PhD and I love working in the research area. For me, that was my beginning part of my journey.

Yeah. That’s great. Rene, how about you? Cause you’re also in chemicals all the way through your career.

Rene Whigham: Yeah, that’s right. So mine actually, my interest in chemistry and math started with a interaction with a fifth grade teacher that introduced me to chemistry and from that point forward, I realized how much I love chemistry and putting the math together with that. Having the opportunities to progress in that career path meant choosing a school that had a really good chemical engineering program. I went on to get advanced degrees in chemical engineering. But it all started with that initial interaction with the teacher, and I also had the support of parents who during the time period I grew up, it wasn’t conventional for women to be in chemical engineering. You run into the naysayers that don’t believe that’s a woman’s role.

Rene Whigham: My parents were always so supportive and telling me you can do and be anything you want to be, just do what you love to do. And that’s really how I ended up saying I’m going to get my degrees in chemical engineering, and I’ve been in the chemical space ever since. So a lot of great support and interaction, but it started with a teacher.

Yeah. That’s really cool. And Joyce. You are not a chemist or a chemical engineer, you’ve got a degree in industrial engineering and yet somehow we still got you roped into the chemical industry.

Joyce Marshall Johnson: I stumbled into the world of chemicals. For me, the journey began early on. Very similar to Rene, an introduction from a great teacher. However, I really gravitated to biology and organisms and how they were formed early on 4th or 5th grade. And then as I entered the middle school years I really began to advance in mathematics. I just loved gravitating to solving problems and just being adventurous with a lot of different things. Actually through my earlier years, it wasn’t really until the end of high school where I realized, I have a little bit of a limitation of exposure to chemistry.

Joyce Marshall Johnson: I dove in my senior year. I landed an engineering scholarship in college, which was a bit unexpected. I was thinking, okay, I love biology. I’m going to pursue something there. But, once I got exposed to the world of engineering and then I began to intern in the natural gas processing space. I became a processing engineer where chemistry became key.

Joyce Marshall Johnson: It grew from there. So I do very much appreciate a lot of teachers along the way that were very influential. My parents were very supportive. But really, it was always there. Chemistry was always there, that the love of learning, engineering, and gravitating to math and sciences were there, but yeah, a little bit different of a journey in the world of chemistry and chemicals. For me, it took off once I committed to an engineering degree in college.

women in chemicals and the you be the chemist challenge

Yeah, that’s really cool. I think what’s interesting about all of it is how exposure was so critical. So whether it be exposure to chemistry in the first place, exposure to the opportunities in engineering and what you can do, because again, as you pointed out, Joyce, you don’t know. None of us know. I think we all went a little bit blindly in some cases into college and into our careers just because we’re hampered by not having examples around us. So that’s where it’s just so great to be able to expose students at a young age and other folks at a young age. My chemistry story, and I’m a chemical engineer. I have 3 older brothers and 3 younger sisters. So 1 of 7, and one of my brothers got a chemistry kit for Christmas one year, you guys might remember it probably came out of the Sears catalog or, Kmart, wherever you bought this stuff from.

We loved mixing the baking soda and vinegar and blowing up rockets in the backyard, that was exciting. I loved once I found the microscope, which is not really chemistry, but just the whole scientific idea that there’s more to it than what’s on the surface. And then examples and great teachers as well. So I think that’s all. It’s so important that the exposure at a young age while you’re still in the decision process is so critical. It’s Women’s History Month, and there’s a lot of discussions in the workplace and items in the media about empowering women, helping women achieve more workplace success and recognition.

Obviously the chemical industry, like other really technical and process heavy industries has long been male dominated. In fact, if we look at engineering school, engineering schools are male dominated. Yet we see a lot of successful women, including yourselves across the industry. What has been really significant in helping you navigate a career? In chemicals and really career progression and feeling like you could stick with it throughout your career. Jen, can we start with you maybe?

Jennifer Jewson: Sure, so we actually had a discussion yesterday within our company about career paths and how do you follow that? How do you stick with it? For me I’m going to tell you, it’s all about mentors. I had a mentor early in my career, and I have one today and they change over time depending on maybe where you are in your career. But without having a mentor, I think there’s no way I would be as successful as I am today. If you look at women in the workforce, we are more apt to be a little more reserved or more risk averse. We don’t put ourselves out there as much. I’ve had mentors in my career that will say things to me like, why not you? Why can’t you do it? And I love that because I think it helps you.

Jennifer Jewson: It makes you a little more vulnerable, but it’s forced me to candidly get out of my comfort zone. You get into a role, and you may be very nervous, but I will tell you within 30 days, you’re like, yeah, I think I can do this. And you’re not really sure about what you’re capable of unless somebody pushes you. So I will tell you that my mentors in my career, I give them all the credit for helping me get to where I am today.

Yeah, that’s really awesome. Rene or Joyce, you have anything to add on that?

Joyce Marshall Johnson: Yeah I think for me too, which was wonderful, was that I didn’t know what I didn’t know and that I didn’t realize I was in a space that was unique to be honest. Yes, I was many times the only female in the room, sometimes the only minority in the room. But, I think just that the grit and I used that brute force method initially because I just didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to necessarily not be there. Mentors don’t always look like a mentor, like they don’t call themselves a mentor, but I think that was really critical for me. There were people that believed in me and supported my progression and sometimes making moves in different levels of the organization and/or different segments from sales to maybe procurement and supply chain. I made some jumps and moves, and I had the support of others, and I thought that was really critical, but they weren’t necessarily my mentors. But in retrospect, when I look back, I was like, in a way, they really were mentors, they were supporters of growth and development and showing what I could do for the organization, which was really critical.

Yeah. In some ways it sounds like maybe they were sponsors even more so than mentors, like creating that opportunity that you may or may not have known about.

Joyce Marshall Johnson: Exactly.

Rene Whigham: Both of those comments are great. And for me, when I talk about mentors to my mentees. I let them know that a mentor is not someone that tells you what you want to hear. They tell you the things that you need to hear. Sometimes those strike us as different, or maybe we don’t agree with them. Those are the people that are seeing attributes in ourselves that maybe we don’t see ourselves and that is so important to have that person that sounding board really that can help you understand that self promotion is very important.

Rene Whigham: I read a study once and I don’t have the details behind it, but if you look at a male and female engineer that starts at the same time, over the course of 10 years, the male is much further in his progression than the female and the data shows that’s because females are more hesitant to talk about how good we are, because we’re always a little bit second guessing ourselves. To Joyce’s point, I never noticed that I was the only woman in a room full of men. It never registered with me because I was just doing the job that I was meant to do. So I didn’t look around the room and take an account of the gender than the room, it was just my job and that’s what I needed to do. So having that perspective and also being open to challenges, like Joyce said, moving outside of your functional area to completely different roles that you may not think you’re ready for. But there’s others that believe in you that think you’re ready and it scares you to death. But that challenge is the energy that makes us go to the next step. There’s so many different things in my career that I’m thankful for and the people that helped me see what I could do that I wasn’t aware that I could do.

Yeah. Your point about career progression and men and women not necessarily progressing at the same rate. I speak to corporate women’s groups and to other groups about this topic called negotiate your success. If you don’t, who will? Women have often have what I call the “tiara syndrome”. If I just put my head down and do a great job, they’re going to see that tiara, my crown on top of my head and know that I’m awesome. The reality is, people don’t know because we’re all egocentric and we don’t necessarily pay attention to everything else. And then studies also show that women negotiate much better on behalf of other people and not so well for themselves.

Women in the chemistry laboratory in the science laboratory,nalyzing and experimenting chemical formulas, you be the chemist

So figuring out, number one, how to go to bat for yourself is critical. And number two, who can you rely on? Whether it be a mentor, a peer, a sponsor to help you when you’re not helping yourself is so important. So turning a little bit, everybody here on this call has developed a great career in chemicals. So what do you wish more people knew about and more women maybe knew about careers in the chemical industry? Cause there’s so many opportunities, but how do we create those opportunities and what do you wish they knew about this?

Rene Whigham: So I think from my perspective, In looking at our operations across the globe, I want women to know all of the different career opportunities that are available. It’s not just engineering and it’s not just chemistry. It is welding. It is instrumentation. It’s electrical work. There’s so many different career paths associated with the chemical industry that we need to communicate broadly to the students that we come in touch with, to young females that all of the different opportunities that exist that are related to the chemical industry are so important.

Joyce Marshall Johnson: And I think it’s also very important to keep in mind, I think the average person doesn’t think a lot about how chemicals are in everything. They’re in everything we touch, everything we do, what we construct. The chemical industry is in the interface with so many other segments of business, with STEM and chemistry being the core foundation of a lot of other industries. Healthcare, construction, it goes on and on. Our global interface with other industry segments and just how stem and chemistry as a core can support so many different career paths that are possible to you. I think that’s something that’s very important for people to know and understand or for our young people to know and understand as well.

Jennifer Jewson: I think Victoria made a really good point earlier, and that is, I think women have a tendency to put their head down. They sit at their desk. They want to do a good job. For me, I think I talk about this often in our office and it’s the power of the dialogue. Reach out to other people and ask what they do. I will tell you, people will always say yes, because they want to talk about their careers and you will see that people have very different multifaceted careers and they could have a job that you don’t think you’re interested in today. But the more you hear about it. The more it might spark an interest, and it might be end up being your passion at the end of the day.

Jennifer Jewson: Talking to a lot of people and understanding what else is out there. I think people will link you to other people and so having that broader network where you can talk to people to me, I wish I would have done that earlier. I love my career. I will tell you, I’ve done things I never thought I would have done, but I also hear about jobs every so often and think wow, I wish I would have done that earlier in my career because that sounds really cool. To me, I just feel like I talk about that all the time to people. Who do you talk to? And it doesn’t have to be somebody high up in an organization, that’s the other thing. It could just be reaching out to people across peers, or even people that are newer in their career. They can share with you a lot of really great opportunities.

I love that, I really do. Let’s talk a little bit more about just education and chemistry, right? So chemistry is at the foundation of what we do. We’ve each talked about how we’ve gotten touched by chemistry and influenced by chemistry and education early in our careers. Why is this so important from your perspective? And if we think about what CEF is doing, why is it important to engage students early?

Jennifer Jewson: I think you have to engage them early or you’ll lose them because as you go up through school, kids don’t worry about the perception of other things. They just enjoy learning at a young age. So I don’t think they think about oh, I’m the smart kid or the sporty kid, they just want to be very open and explore and observe. The thing I worry about, or if you don’t catch them early enough as they go into high school girls aren’t supposed to be good at math. Oh, it’s not cool to be a math person. I loved math. And so I bucked it because I’m very stubborn, but I think at the higher grades, you get into the perception of where you shouldn’t be.

Jennifer Jewson: And I do think people, they want to fit in. So I think folks will have a tendency to say, yeah I’m not good at math. So I’m just not going to do it versus. I actually really enjoy it, and why wouldn’t I want to do it? So to me, it feels like catching them early, you catch a passion there. That doesn’t have a bias to it.

Rene Whigham: Kids today are under so much social pressure that if you can catch them early enough and spark that curiosity and let them know that there are no preconceived notions about what you can do and how far you can go and what career path you take. Where I live is more of a rural area, and when I do career days at the local schools there is a significant difference between the elementary schools and the attention that I get there. And in the high school, those decisions are already made by the women and girls in high school.


Rene Whigham: There’s not an audience there, but when you go into an elementary school, there’s an audience and they pay attention. So it’s just getting to them at that early age to let them understand the vast array of things that they can go do in their life.

Yeah. So this is a good segue to talk about CEF and the, You Be The Chemist challenge. So can one of you guys just give us an overview of CEF and You Be The Chemist, Joyce, do you wanna jump in on this?

Joyce Marshall Johnson: Sure. CEF is very much committed to engaging with students early in chemistry and STEM activities. The You Be The Chemist challenge focuses on students that are between the ages of the fifth grade and eighth grade and in providing a challenge activity for them to become a part of and to engage and to build their relationship when it comes to chemistry and STEM activity. So it is a very good program that happens annually and I personally enjoy that opportunity of even being hands on with the earlier challenges that are set throughout the year for CF, You Be The Chemist.

So can one of you guys talk about how it’s structured because it is a national contest and there’s local challenges along the way. Is that right?

Rene Whigham: So I can touch on it just a bit. We start early, usually 4th quarter of the year, setting up the regional challenges. Getting the teams in place, and then once they register, they get the materials, they start their plans and how they participate. There are teams of 4, 5th through 8th grade students, and they have real world problems to solve and they’re not easy problems. This is like building a company, in what type of workforce that you would have in your company. So it’s not a typical 5th grade questions, but it’s designed to challenge their thinking.

Rene Whigham: The regional competitions happen and then the top 5 teams from around the U.S. and Canada actually get to travel to Houston expenses paid to compete live for scholarships. They start on a Monday, June 10th and then the award ceremony is on June 11th. The thing that I like so much about the scholarships that are available, is that it’s not just about scholarships for college. It is for other types of education, certifications for any type of career paths, because when we look at this, maintaining a sustainable workforce in our chemical industry, it’s not just about engineers. We need the technicians. We need the people that can work with their hands and perform. A chemical operator doesn’t have to have a college education, but we can’t run our plants without them. So these scholarships go to promote not only the college education, but other types of STEM related backgrounds as well.

This year is the 20th anniversary of You Be The Chemist, and as you ladies have articulated, the top five teams are coming from across the country to Houston in the beginning of June to compete for the title. I think there’s something like $50,000 in scholarships. So each one of you have attended these events. What makes it special? What stands out for you when you’ve attended one of this You Be The Chemist finals?

Rene Whigham: It’s the collaboration between these teams. Not only the members on a single team, but between the teams, the energy and excitement in the room is contagious. To see that flow in the parents and supporters that are there with their kids, it just gives you the thought that you want to go and spread this throughout all the schools so that everybody can participate.

Joyce Marshall Johnson: I always enjoyed celebrating their achievements, really, whether it was a regional challenge and seeing them engaging and seeing their curiosity just soar on solving all these different problems and answering these questions. But especially at the finals, it’s that. Celebrating their achievements and celebrating what they were able to accomplish and learn through this process and through the challenges. I’ve always really enjoyed that part of it as well.

Jennifer Jewson: I will say, we just had a regional challenge here in Houston, and there is nothing better than watching these kids edify each other and get super excited. So how you can not get wound up in that. It’s just impossible to me. To me, it’s just the purest joy watching them excited about learning and doing different things. The other comment that Rene made was a really good one. At San Jacinto College, we did the challenge and then we took all the kids to do a tour of the labs that are there. It’s great for the kids to see what’s possible. But the other thing that’s also very important, there are a lot of parents and teachers there, and I think it also helps to educate them a little bit about what’s possible.

Jennifer Jewson: When you talk about career, we talk about chemistry being foundational and it is, it’s everything we touch. But chemistry touches and because of that, it touches so many different avenues. You can be an operator, you can be a truck driver, you can be an analytical chemist. There’s all these different things and I think just getting first the kids exposure, but also the parents and the teachers. I think it helps to raise the floor when it comes to level of discussion with these kids.

happy young teens group in school on chemistry lessons and library education you be the chemist

I think it’s great. As you point out, each one of these teams is working with a teacher. So we’ve got a teacher in middle school that is helping to sponsor the program for their schools. Again, back to the whole importance of having a mentor, a coach, a teacher engage and spark some of that interest really early is so critical. It’s obviously also really critical to your companies, right? So your companies have each chosen to be sponsors, not just in money, but in time. Providing the resources, the people to go judge the competitions and support that. Why? There’s always this wide array of things that you could be dedicating your time and your money to. Why is this important to your companies?

Jennifer Jewson: I think we have to invest in tomorrow’s workforce. We won’t be successful without it. I think Rene said it very well earlier, we’re in this time where everybody feels like you need to go to college and get a college degree. You don’t, you can have a really great career with certifications and accreditations from other things and find something you truly enjoy. For us, tomorrow’s workforce is incredibly important now, more than ever. I think as we look at the chemical industry, continuing to change to be more sustainable over time, we all have projects that we are facilitating that will require people to execute them. It’s going to happen at a pretty fast pace in my mind.

Jennifer Jewson: It has to happen at a fast pace because we have goals for 2030, 2040, 2050. Those will be here before we know it. So I think we need to start now to make sure that we have those folks in the future so that we can accomplish all of these goals.

Joyce Marshall Johnson: We also need the diversification of the people as well, because diversification drives innovation and different trains of thought. So we need all different types of people with different backgrounds and different trains of thought to come into our industry. I think again, with all the different career paths and things that you can do within the chemical industry, we need to attract everyone to have that interest, whether it’s girls having those interests early on or just a diverse slate of different types of people from different backgrounds, that’s just going to do nothing but bring more innovation into our industry as well.


Rene Whigham: As an industry, if we don’t step in and spark this interest for developing the workforces that we need, we won’t have them. If we leave it to no one else to do this, then we will not have the workforce that we need to be sustainable in the future. So we have to step up and take the responsibility of making sure that we develop the workforce for the future.

Love it. My only comment I would add on that is that we also need to influence people to understand that chemicals are actually foundational for what we do. Even if they never work in the chemical industry to recognize, the paint on the wall, the plastic of my phone, my computer, keyboard, everything around me is enhanced and supported by the chemical industry and so we need to be good stewards of that as well. This is a great time to encourage everybody who’s listening to join us for the You Be The Chemist 20th Anniversary Challenge and Celebration, which is going to be held on June 10th and 11th here in Houston. So it’s a great chance for you. If you’re local, make the time to come visit the challenge and participate and join the celebration.

If you’re out of the Houston area, it’s a great opportunity for a business trip, see some customers, come see the future generations in the chemical industry and experience the excitement of the You Be The Chemist Challenge. So thank you all for joining and sharing your insights today.

Joyce Marshall Johnson: Thank you so much.

Yeah, absolutely. And thank you everyone for listening. Keep listening, keep following, keep sharing, and we will talk again soon.

About The Women of CEF:

Joyce Marshall Johnson

Product Director – Solvents, Univar Solutions, The Woodlands, TX

Mrs. Marshall Johnson has been with Univar Solutions for over 25 years and active in the chemicals and oil and gas industry since1989.  She is currently accountable for select solvent products and enterprise relationships. She has held a variety of global and regional leadership roles throughout her career in the areas of process engineering, planning, sales, purchasing, corporate accounts, and product management.

Additionally, she is an active volunteer in supporting youth education and outreach efforts and has participated in company initiatives advocating for workforce diversity, equity, and inclusion. Mrs. Marshall Johnson earned a BS in Industrial Engineering from the University of Oklahoma and an MBA from the University of Houston Victoria.


Jennifer Jewson

Chief Procurement Officer,  Lyondellbasell (LYB),  Houston, TX

She is responsible for the procurement of Lyondellbasell’s requirements which includes but is not limited to Technical Materials and Services, Raw Materials, Corporate and IT Services and Industrial Gases. She is responsible for setting the contracting strategy for materials acquisition, leading the Sustainable Procurement initiative for Scope 3 emissions and developing a global operating model for best cost country procurement. Her scope also utilizes digital and IT tools for greater purchasing visibility and predictability. Jen started out as a Chemist within R&D working on both catalyst design and product development.

She was awarded 9 patents within her R&D tenure. She moved to Houston in 2003 where she has held various roles within the company within Business, Sales, Feedstocks and Mergers & Acquisitions. In 2015-2017 she moved to Rotterdam to complete an expat assignment where she worked to globalize the Lead to Cash Process within Supply Chain. She is a champion of the LYB LIFT network where she supports women in the organization through networking and coaching. She also participates on the board for the Chemical Education Foundation which provides STEM education K-5 for underprivileged children. In 2023 Jen was elected President of Together for Sustainability where she works with CPOs from peer petrochemical companies to drive a sustainability workstreams including but not limited to Scope 3. She holds a B.S. and Ph.D. in Chemistry and an MBA in Finance.


Rene Whigham

Vice President, EH&S, Sustainability, Productivity & Product Stewardship, Olin, Cleveland, TN

Ms. Whigham joined Olin in 1989 as an R&D Engineer then moved into manufacturing where she held a variety of operations and engineering management roles at multiple North American facilities. In 2006, Ms. Whigham transitioned into the commercial organization leading the “order-to-cash” Business Process Integration of an acquired company and later moved into Business Leadership roles across multiple chloralkali products.  Ms. Whigham actively promotes STEM in the local school system through a variety of volunteer activities.

Ms. Whigham received her B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the West Virginia Institute of Technology and her M.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Virginia.  Ms. Whigham also completed the Executive Leadership Program at the Darden School of Business.