Mamie Moy:

Chemist, Professor, Pioneer

By Francine Parker

Mamie Moy’s life would likely have been totally different if her parents hadn’t defied traditional Chinese-American culture.

In the 1940s, women in the small, but growing, Chinese-American community in Moy’s hometown, San Antonio, were expected to marry, raise children and care for their aging parents. Moy took a different course, one that led her to the University of Houston, first as a student then as an instructor. In time, she would become UH’s longest-serving tenured faculty member. Today, Moy holds the title of professor emeritus in chemistry, earning that distinction in 2013.

“My father wanted us to go to college,” Moy said, including her brother and sister. “He said, ‘If I can’t give you anything else, I can give you an education.’ We still live by that philosophy: When you have your education, you’re able to make a life of your own.”

Indeed, Moy has made quite a life for herself.

Teaching at UH for more than six decades, she has enlightened thousands of students and received numerous accolades, including being named a fellow of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in 2010. Moy also was honored by her former students, friends and family members who endowed a Tier One scholarship at UH in her name.

Despite such honors, Moy remains an unassuming woman with a quick wit, charm and a tenacious spirit. She attributes much of her success to the encouragement of her Chinese immigrant parents. The values they instilled in her were invaluable as Moy pursued a career in the male-dominated field of chemistry.

It was a high school teacher, though, who genuinely sparked her interest.

“I had a science teacher who was so much fun,” Moy said. “When I would ask a question, she would say, ‘Why don’t we just find out?’”

Moy’s own inquisitiveness continued throughout high school and college. She eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from UT-Austin in 1950. Shortly after graduation, she landed her first job in Houston.

“Back then, women just weren’t hired in chemistry labs, so I took a job with a clinical lab,” Moy said. “After three months, I quit.”

Undeterred, Moy decided on graduate school at UH. Petite and soft-spoken, Moy was determined to succeed.

“There were two or three Asian faculty members here then,” Moy recalled. “There may have been other Asian-American students, but I didn’t encounter any. I did not have much time to be involved in campus activities,” she said.

Ducks on the Pond

“At that time, the old science building housed chemistry, biology, geology and pharmacy. The Student Service center was the gym. Instead of the really nice fountain we have now, it was a pond. It actually had ducks.”

After receiving her master’s degree in chemistry, Moy accepted a fulltime position as an instructor. During the next 20 years, Moy’s career flourished. In the 1970s and 1980s, she served as associate chair of the chemistry department, overseeing undergraduate and graduate programs. Moy visited prominent universities in China and Europe, recruiting their best students to pursue advanced studies. The number of graduate students more than doubled. The department also saw a significant increase in research funding, teaching fellowships and top faculty hires.

A Tragic Loss

During that time, Moy suffered a tragic loss: Her husband, an engineer, died in a car accident in 1978. Her son, Clifford, was 17 years old. Following her parents’ good example, she did the same for Clifford, single-handedly paying his tuition. He now practices psychiatry in Houston.

In addition to her teaching and administrative duties, Moy took on yet another task—leading a new program by ACS to teach chemistry to high school students.

A passion to engage children in chemistry and science grew and she began working with children at various elementary schools.

“Kids are like sponges,” Moy said.

photograph of moy as a small child
A very young Mamie at home in San Antonio

For the next three decades, Moy initiated several community outreach programs, including the Robert Welch Foundation Summer Scholars program that brings bright high school students to UH. She founded the Science & Mathematics Applied Resources for Teachers Center, which trains pre-college math and science teachers. She also worked to improve the quality of chemical education as the regional director of the Associated Chemistry Teachers of Texas.

Her work earned her two distinguished ACS accolades — the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Camille and the Henry Dreyfus Foundation Award for Encouraging Women into Careers in the Chemical Sciences. She also is a recipient of a UH Teaching Excellence Award, a Distinguished Service to Science Education Award from the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association of University Women of Texas Woman of Distinction Award.

Keeping Busy

Moy, who turned 85 in September, retired from UH last year, but retains an office on campus and is still involved in community engagement. Moy also stays busy attending opera and theatrical production and dining with friends and family. She remains Cougar proud – pleased by the University’s rapid expansion and progress, but not surprised by its “national presence.”

Looking back, Moy said her UH years have been fulfilling. “I’m so grateful for having known and met so many wonderful people, not only my colleagues, but also my students.”

It was one of those students who expressed his gratitude in a recent e-mail. In the late 1960s, the man, undecided about his career, took her chemistry class.

“I found your lectures so fascinating and engaging that I declared chemical engineering as my major,” the man noted. He went on to have a successful career in the auto industry. “It was only later that I came to appreciate the influence you had on my life,” he wrote. “And for this I extend my very belated thanks.”

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