Elizabeth Petersen had prepared herself for an emotional afternoon on Feb. 19 as she joined other friends and former colleagues in celebrating the life and service of Jane A. Miller, the longtime University of Missouri–St. Louis professor of chemistry who passed away at the age of 93 after a bout with COVID-19 on March 17, 2021.
It was therapeutic to finally get a chance to have a formal remembrance and reminisce with others about her longtime mentor and friend, who made such a profound impact on Petersen’s life starting when she enrolled in Miller’s chemistry course as a freshman at UMSL in 1975.
After a while spent sharing stories at Glen Echo Country Club, Petersen didn’t think anything of it when her friends and fellow UMSL graduates Jeanette Hencken, Sandra Mueller and Joan Twillman asked for the microphone. She figured they just had one more tale to share about the woman who helped fuel their love of science and inspired all their teaching careers.
Petersen did not expect that they would be presenting her with the inaugural Dr. Jane A. Miller Award, created to recognize “encouragement, fostering and support of women in science and science education.”
“It was a complete shock,” Petersen said. “It was like, ‘Wait, wait, wait, what?’ Then it was really like an arrow piercing my heart. ‘Oh, man, now I’m going to cry.’
“The award itself epitomizes everything Jane stood for.”
Miller was the first woman hired in UMSL’s Department of Chemistry in 1965, two years after the university was established, and she continued to open doors throughout her time at the university, later becoming the first woman in the department granted tenure.
She wrote extensively on women in science throughout her career and inspired many of her female students to follow her into the sciences. She also founded the Math Science Network of Greater St. Louis, a group of women that encourage young women to pursue STEM careers.
Miller, who retired from UMSL in 1992 and received the UMSL Trailblazer Award in 2013, wasn’t content to simply break down barriers. She also fought for equity, even filing a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to address the salary disparities between male and female faculty members, and she was successful, pushing the University of Missouri System to raise the salaries of women across all four universities.
“Jane was a tenacious pioneer in the fight for women’s equality and recognition of achievement,” said Curators Distinguished Teaching Professor Charles Granger, who helps oversee science education programs at UMSL and is a longtime member of the Department of Biology.
Granger had the idea to establish an award in Miller’s honor and believes Petersen was an ideal choice as its inaugural recipient.
“As the fight continues to alleviate this problem, we need individuals to lead the movement toward equality, and Elizabeth Petersen is an example of the needed leadership as determined by her peers from the generation of students that Dr. Miller inspired,” Granger said. “Elizabeth is an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and especially for promoting women in the STEM fields. It is only right that one of Jane’s students and a strong STEM professional advocate receive the recognition for carrying on the pursuit of equity in Jane’s name.”
Petersen earned her bachelor’s degree in biology in 1979, but she wound up working initially in insurance while starting a family after graduation.
She didn’t decide to move into science education until her 30s after first meeting with Granger to talk about getting certified. He was encouraging, confident she’d make a great teacher, and Petersen went on to receive her certification to teach biology in 1992.
Her first job was teaching an inquiry program in the education department at the Missouri Botanical Garden, and she went on to pursue her MEd from UMSL, graduating in 1996. She then landed a position at Ladue Middle School the next year.
Petersen taught sixth-grade Earth science and seventh-grade life science at the school for 18 years. In 2003, she was honored as the Humane Society Teacher of the Year, and she has also received the Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award from St. Louis Academy of Science.
Over the last eight years, Petersen has moved out of the classroom to focus on curriculum and professional development, working as a STEM facilitator for the Institute for School Partners at Washington University in St. Louis.
“We work all over the metropolitan area, both in Illinois and in the St. Louis metropolitan area,” Petersen said. “We actually have a K-8 curriculum, and then I work with the Ritenour High School science teachers. I absolutely love it. I love, love, love anything that empowers teachers or that helps them become better teachers.”
She received the UMSL Alumni Award for Outstanding Achievement and Meritorious Service to Education in Teaching from the College of Education in 2007 and was named a Distinguished Alumni Award recipient in 2020.
Miller encouraged Petersen’s move into education. The two had grown close since Petersen’s time as an undergraduate when Miller – who at the time was dealing with cataracts – wound up hiring Petersen to drive her to and from campus in exchange for room and board at her home. They remained in touch even after Petersen graduated and started her family.
After Petersen began teaching, she, Miller, Hencken, Mueller and Twillman started a routine of meeting throughout the year to celebrate each other’s birthdays. More recently, as Miller’s mobility declined and she stopped driving, Petersen took to picking her up every Friday afternoon to do her grocery shopping and other errands.
Miller remained sharp mentally until the end of her life, even as she dealt with physical complications. She was living at home and hooked up to oxygen a short time before her death but still managed to lead a seminar on Nobel Prize-winning women from Missouri for some of her former students via Zoom.
Petersen cherishes that and so many other memories of Miller, and over the past week, she could not help but stop and stare at the Jane A. Miller Award that has been sitting on the island in her kitchen.
“It’s just very cool,” Petersen said. “I think what was really kind of fun is the way everybody who was there was celebrating. They were all like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so cool. What a fitting tribute to Jane, passing the legacy.’”