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Laurel Wilkening ’66

June 4, 2019, in Arizona.

Prominent planetary scientist and a leading expert on comets, asteroids, and meteorites, Laurel also blazed a trail as an educator, becoming the first woman to serve as chancellor at UC Irvine.

She was born in Richland, Washington, and raised in Socorro, New Mexico, where her father worked on the first atomic bomb and later taught college physics. Laurel always had a passion for science. She majored in chemistry at Reed and wrote her thesis on copper carbonyls with Prof. Arthur Scott [chemistry 1923–79]. She went on to get her doctorate in chemistry at UC San Diego, where she examined the first lunar rock released from quarantine after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

Laurel taught cosmochemistry and planetary science at the University of Arizona, where she became the director of its Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, served as vice president for research and dean of the graduate college, and was instrumental in establishing the department of gender and women’s studies. She also met her future husband, Godfrey Sill, a Carmelite friar working on his doctorate. 

She went on to become the first woman provost at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she was also vice president for academic affairs. In the ’80s, she spent a year as a scientist working on a proposed NASA mission to Halley’s comet that fell victim to budget cuts. 

In 1993, Laurel headed to UC Irvine, becoming its first woman chancellor and succeeding in her goal of moving it into the ranks of America’s top 50 research universities. She spearheaded the creation of University Research Park, a national model for collaboration between the private sector and university researchers.

Laurel was revered among planetary scientists. She authored two books, scores of scientific articles, and edited a definitive text on comets. She served on numerous scientific bodies, including the Space Policy Advisory Board, the National Commission on Space, the Meteoritical Society, and the Planetary Society. 

Despite her leadership posts, Laurel found teaching the most gratifying part of her career, and she loved the university environment. “Academia works by people talking to each other face to face,” she said. “At Reed, I learned how to communicate with people, learned to stand on my position if I believed in it.”

Laurel was a lifelong Reed supporter, and served on the board of trustees. She also made a generous gift that was instrumental in restoring the Reed canyon.

After retiring in 1998, she returned to Arizona, where her husband ran a vineyard. He died in 2007. Laurel is survived by her brother, Wes Wilkening.

Her name lives on, however. In 2013, an asteroid discovered by astronomers at the University of Arizona was officially named (75562) Wilkening in her honor.

Appeared in Reed magazine: December 2019

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