A Passion for Science Leads to Element Discovery, Inspires the Next Generation

Nancy Stoyer
Nancy Stoyer, ’88, chemistry alumna

Nancy Stoyer, ’88, enrolled at Stanislaus State as a math major, but — like many students — she knew she probably was going to change her major. She found physics and chemistry as appealing disciplines, and after taking several chemistry courses she settled in to pursue her undergraduate degree in the field.

“I see science in everything around me … I'm sure it drives my children crazy,” she said. “Chemistry is a way to look at what is happening in the world and explaining it at a submicroscopic level.”

Stoyer said it was the relationships she built with her professors that stood out the most from her time at Stan State.

“I had teachers who I felt actually cared about me,” she said. “I enjoyed the smaller classes for upper division Chemistry. We had more opportunities to interact and discuss topics.” 

In fact, it was the encouragement of her undergraduate mentor, Professor Hobart Hamilton, that resulted in her application to graduate schools and eventually her acceptance to UC Berkeley.

“One thing that really stands out, even to this day, is that Dr. Hamilton said he was willing to write me a letter of recommendation to any university for graduate school. He said he’d write as many as I wanted but I had to include at least one school like UC Berkeley,” Stoyer said. “I included UC Berkeley, even though I had no intention of going there, and that is where I ended up going.”

Stoyer also was urged by Hamilton to attend summer programs at Argonne National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory - West, in Idaho Falls, Idaho. There she worked in the field of nuclear science, which has become the focus of her work ever since, leading to her earning her Ph.D. in Chemistry from UC Berkeley with a focus on nuclear science. 

Shortly after leaving Berkeley, she joined Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) as a nuclear chemist working on several projects, include some that involved matters of national security, nuclear non-proliferation and counter-proliferation, and military reach-back. She also was a part of the heavy element group at LLNL and the Dubna-Livermore collaboration, which resulted in the discovery and naming of element 114, flerovium, in 1998, and element 116, livermorium, in 2000.

While the importance of the discoveries of these elements may yet be unknown, Stoyer described partaking in the process of discovery — seeing something new for the first time — as an integral part of the human experience.

“We will revisit this element many times to learn more about it but we will also continue to search for the next new one,” she explained. “In some ways we don't yet know the importance or the impact these elements will have. For example, when americium, element 95, was discovered, there was no useful role for it; but when both its nuclear and elemental properties were determined it was used in smoke detectors — completely unanticipated.”

After leaving LLNL in 2008, Stoyer volunteered at an elementary school and discovered a new love. Pursuing her newfound desire to teach, she entered into an internship program that would allow her to teach and earn her credential simultaneously. Just three months into the program her plans were derailed when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. 

Though she did not complete the credential program, she continues to find ways to share her passion for science with students. She returned to LLNL in 2012 as a part-time consultant, which allowed her to dedicate time to speaking in 5th grade, 8th grade and high school classrooms about chemistry, nuclear science, the periodic table and element discovery.

“What I want the students to learn is that science is not something to be afraid of, that it is always moving and growing,” she said. 

She also shares a little bit about the processes that were used to make the atoms of flerovium and livermorium. By sharing her knowledge and experiences in classrooms, Stoyer hopes she might be inspiring the next generation to pursue scientific discovery. 

Stoyer also recently served as a panelist for a Stanislaus State Alumni Association Career Connection event, sharing her passion for science with students at the University — many who are planning to pursue careers in science or science-related fields. 

“If I can inspire a student to continue to pursue their interest in science that would be fantastic,” she said.