Clarice Evone Phelps (née Salone) is an American nuclear chemist researching the processing of radioactivetransuranic elements at the U.S. 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 was raised in the state of Tennessee, United States. Her interest in chemistry began 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. She is an alumna of the Tennessee Aquatic Project and Development Group, a nonprofit organization for at-risk youth. Phelps completed a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from Tennessee State University in 2003.
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[update], Phelps is a Ph.D. student in the nuclear engineering program at University of Tennessee.
Phelps struggled academically in college.: 3:14 Unable to find employment after graduating, she joined the United States Navy.: 11:52 Phelps enrolled in the Navy’s Nuclear Power School, which she credits with teaching her “how to study”.: 3:22 Phelps studied nuclear power, reactor theory, and thermodynamics, and graduated in the top 10% of her class of 300–400 students.: 3:49 Phelps told an interviewer in 2019 that she pursued nuclear chemistry in part because of the lack of black women in the field.: 4:20
They needed to see somebody like me sitting in the same spaces that they were at, and excelling in that same space.— Phelps, 2019, on why she became a nuclear chemist: 4:38
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,: 2:14 and was the only black woman in her division on the ship.: 4:25