Stephanie Louise Kwolek was born in New Kensington, Pennsylvania on July 31, 1923. Her parents were very supportive of her and wanted to do everything they could to make sure she received a proper education. They also instilled in her two infatuations that stuck with her for life; her love of science and fabrics. In fact, Kwolek spent most of her high school days battling over which to become when she grew older. Should she go to school and study science? Or should she pursue her other love of fashion design and materials?
Progress toward a higher education was slowed, however, when Stephanie’s father passed away when she was only ten. Her mother was fortunate to find work at the Aluminum Company of America in the early 1930s. The depression was still hitting American families hard, but Nellie Kwolek was determined to allow her children to have a college level education. (Camp, 2004, p. 73)
Kwolek graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University in 1946 and began searching for a temporary job with the intent to go back to medical school when she could afford it. Shortly thereafter she received a job offer from DuPont Company. She found the polymer research at DuPont so interesting and challenging that she soon forgot about her plans to go back to school. Instead, she made chemistry her lifetime career. (Bowden, 1997, p. 141)
Kwolek’s main area of research was polymers. Polymers are “any of various chemical compounds made of smaller, identical molecules linked together.” (The American Heritage Science Dictionary, 2009) Many occur in nature such as protein and rubber molecules. Scientists found ways to create polymers in labs in 1939 with the creation of a polymer called nylon. When woven into cloth people found that this new polymer was far more useful and efficient to produce than cotton cloth. Scientists everywhere soon began searching for new polymers.
In 1964, Kwolek and her team were given the job to create the next generation of high-performance fibers. Thanks to her alternative approach to polymerization, which used lower temperatures during creation as opposed to high, Kwolek had discovered a process to produce a material five times stronger than steel by 1966.