Science teachers, alumnae reflect on UMSL’s first female chemistry professor, who inspired their careers

by | Apr 2, 2017

For Jeanette Hencken, Liz Petersen, Sandra Mueller and Joan Twillman, meeting Jane Miller changed their lives and fueled their passion for science education.
Professor Emerita of Chemistry Jane Miller (center) stands with former students and UMSL alumnae (from left) Jeanette Hencken, Liz Petersen, Sandra Mueller and Joan Twillman. The women credit Miller with inspiring them to pursue careers in science education and instill their passion for science and women empowerment in generations of St. Louis youth. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Professor Emerita of Chemistry Jane Miller (center) stands with former students and UMSL alumnae (from left) Jeanette Hencken, Liz Petersen, Sandra Mueller and Joan Twillman. The women credit Miller with inspiring them to pursue careers in science education and instilling their passion for science and women’s empowerment in generations of St. Louis youth. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Four University of Missouri–St. Louis alumnae struggle to find adequate words to sum up Jane Miller.

The professor emerita of chemistry has meant so much to Jeanette Hencken, Sandra Mueller, Liz Petersen and Joan Twillman. It’s impossible to touch on all the ways she has fueled their teaching careers, love of science and empowerment of women in the field and beyond.

“Anybody that she comes in contact with, it’s almost like she has this fairy dust she sprinkles over them,” Petersen said. “She’s just so inspirational.”

After having Miller as a professor, the four women went on to become some of the St. Louis region’s most outstanding and accomplished science teachers.

Hencken, BA chemistry 1985, has taught chemistry and forensics science at Webster Groves High School since 1993. Besides earning a 2012 Peabody Leaders in Education Award, Hencken has been a leading expert in establishing forensics science curricula and workshops for high school teachers across the nation. She and her students also gather and document Payless and Walmart shoe data to send to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and maintain a website for law enforcement and forensic footwear examiners to reference for crime scene investigations. They are the only resource for this information on shoes from Payless and Walmart because no other agency or person has been allowed to photograph and document within those stores. “This entire project…I never dreamt it would be like this,” said Hencken, who still teaches and coordinates the effort.

Mueller, BA chemistry 1976, taught science for 37 years, most of those as a chemistry teacher at John Burroughs School. She would arrive at school every day at five in the morning and stay late. A shining moment in her career came in 2015 when one of her students received the Presidential Scholar Award for Missouri and named her as his most influential teacher. She got to go to Washington D.C. and be recognized for her inspiring teaching. Mueller was also named the St. Louis-area Chemistry Teacher of the Year and chaired the American Chemical Society-Topical Group for six years. “That was a big thing I tried to do,” she said, “to get the teachers the resources available to them.” She’s since retired.

Petersen, BA biology 1979, was a teacher at Ladue Middle School for 18 years, where she taught sixth-grade Earth science and seventh-grade life science. Her colleagues credit her with turning around Science Teachers of Missouri, a resource organization for science educators in the state. Petersen was the president of STOM in 2005 and served in an active leadership capacity for 10 years. She was also the Humane Society Teacher of the Year in 2003 and named Outstanding Teacher of the Year by the St. Louis Academy of Science. “For me it’s really about touching kids’ lives,” Petersen said. “There’s a part of you that goes with every single kid.” She now does professional development for teachers as a facilitator and instructor of STEM TQ (Teacher Quality) at Washington University in St. Louis.

Twillman, BA chemistry 1981, taught chemistry at St. Charles West High School for 24 years. She organized the Science Research Kids class there and had students go to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, where they were recognized for their excellence. Twillman had to guide each student through a research project. “If they didn’t know more than I did about their subject, they didn’t know enough,” Twillman said. She was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year by the St. Louis Academy of Science. Twillman can also boast having a former student hired to the Central Intelligence Agency during his first year as an engineering undergraduate at Missouri S&T in Rolla. The offer came after the recruiters learned of his impressive gadget-building experience in the science club Twillman helped establish at St. Charles West. Twillman is retired now.

Ask any one of them, and they’ll trace their passion for science back to Miller, who they, in part, credit for their career successes.

Miller graduated from the all-women’s Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry. She went on to receive both her master’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry from Tulane University in New Orleans.

After marrying a St. Louisan, Miller relocated to the Gateway City. She came to UMSL as the first female hire in the Department of Chemistry in 1965, only two years after the official opening of the university. She later became the first woman to receive tenure in the department as well.

“It was not an easy ride,” Miller said.

Women’s roles in higher education, and especially the sciences, were often questioned and undervalued – something she later challenged and helped change at the university.

Due to a limited budget and social stigmas of the time, Miller didn’t have a laboratory. As a professor, she was required to do research, so she took up researching the history of science, particularly the history of chemistry and women in the field. She also became one of the go-to methods teaching supervisors for students who had majored in chemistry with the intent to teach and earn their certification from UMSL. Miller would advise and observe their student teaching.

“When she’d observe the sessions and then afterwards…you just sat there and talked and talked,” Mueller said.

“She always wanted to know what we were doing,” Hencken said. “It was all sharing ideas – what you knew and what she could share.”

“I never had an education course,” Miller said. “So I did work very hard to get into science education so that I could do a good job with them. And it was a great situation. Not only because you can make sure that your students know the material they’re teaching, but also teach them how to be a good teacher. Schools just begged for our student teachers. They never had a problem getting a job.”

Besides her outstanding support, the four women also remember some key traits Miller taught them.

“Independence,” Petersen said. “And to stand up for yourself. It’s OK to challenge authority. In fact, please do so.”

And while Miller challenged her students, they also felt nothing but support from her.

“She had total confidence in you,” Twillman added. “And she knows everything. She can give you information and make you know that you asked for it, or maybe you didn’t, but you wanted to hear it when she told it to you.”

“I’m so proud of all my students because they have done really wonderful things,” Miller said.

When asked about her pioneer approach to teaching as a woman in the sciences, Miller had no doubt about where she learned her fierceness.

“I think a lot of it had to do with going to a women’s high school and a women’s college,” Miller said. “When I graduated from Agnes Scott, I thought I could do anything. I had had mentors who were excellent women. Most of the faculty at both schools were women. And just, I loved learning, and I loved research. That’s what did it.”

Miller taught at UMSL until 1992, when she retired. She is 89 this year, and her four former students are already planning her birthday celebration.

In fact, birthdays are a tradition with this group. They meet five times a year to celebrate each other’s big day.

“When you get home from the dinner, you just feel so good for so long…so energized and ready to tackle the next big thing,” Mueller said.

“We all love Jane,” Petersen added. “And we love each other and support each other. We’re just really lucky to know her and grow with her.”

The UMSL Experience

Marisol Ramirez

Marisol Ramirez