Dr. Rolande R. Hodel
is the president and founder of AIDSfreeAFRICA, a non-profit organization working to help people in Cameroon produce, distribute and quality control pharmaceutical drugs locally. When in New York, Dr. Hodel teaches chemistry to aspiring nursing students at Westchester Community College in Valhalla, NY. She obtained a M.S. from the University of Kansas, Lawrence KS, and her Ph.D. from the City University of New York, Queens College with Dr. Harry D. Gafney.
Dr. Hodel’s clearly remembers the day when her adopted hometown of Kaiserslautern opened the doors of its first scientific university. Then ten years old, she was in awe of the university’s library and spontaneously declared that she would one day get a Ph.D. in mathematics. Growing up in a blue-collar family, her aspirations were not taken seriously, yet during school breaks her father taught her fractions, which she loved, and asked her to write essays, which she dreaded.
Although education was valued, her family assumed Rolande would leave school after nine years (the minimum schooling allowed) and learn a trade. Supported by a school counselor, she won the argument to stay in school one additional year to get her middle school certificate. This required that she teach herself an entire textbook to bridge the gap in her English skills. Despite her certificate, finding a suitable apprentice spot was not easy because she insisted it had to include mathematics. Eventually, Rolande got a position as a Chemistry Laboratory Technicians at the BASF chemistry company. Still a minor, Rolande moved to Ludwigshaven where she lived in dormitory style housing with 900 other apprentices. Experiencing life in this community of her peers coming from all over Germany made Dr. Hodel strive for more. She later applied for government-sponsored programs for children of blue-collar workers so she would be able to obtain a high school degree.
Rolande was studying Psychology at the University in Tuebingen when a friend asked her to accompany her on a trip across the United States. In the U.S. Dr. Hodel felt more at home than she ever felt in Germany and decided to emigrate. The University of Kansas in Lawrence offered her a one-year scholarship for a non-degree program in psychology. She was happy to be in America, but she could not warm up to the type of psychology that was taught there; it felt strange to her since she had been studying Freudian psychoanalysis in Germany. After being introduce to Dr. Gunda Georg, a professor of medicinal chemistry and a fellow German, and attending a social gathering of Dr. Georg’s research group, Rolande was reminded her of her love for chemistry. Only a few days later, Rolande went to the chemistry department on campus and asked if she may study chemistry. Gender discrimination, in those years, was normal, so it was a wild ride, but with much support and a will to succeed, she changed her visa status and was accepted into the Ph.D. program in Chemistry. Following the advice of Dr. Georg, Rolande wrote a master’s thesis, and passed all the required cumulative exams and her Ph.D. orals, leaving only a dissertation for completion of the Ph.D.
Before completing her dissertation, Dr. Hodel was offered a job through the National Employment Clearing House, a program run during national meetings organized by the American Chemical Society (ACS). ACS is the largest professional association for chemists, and Dr. Hodel was and remains a member. The job with Nanocrystals Technology in New York City came with the significant promise of a green card and used many of the skills she had acquired in Kansas working with pyrophoric materials to synthesize magnesium doped cadmium selenide nanocrystals. Through several ACS connections, Dr. Hodel later secured other research positions in different fields and made important connections that would shape her future. When she helped an adjunct professor she knew from ACS transition from academia into industry, the woman returned the favor and introduced Dr. Hodel to professors at the City University of New York (CUNY). After passing a series of entrance exams, the University accepted all her credits from Kansas and Dr. Hodel was officially admitted into the Ph.D. program. Dr. Hodel did research with Dr. Valeria Balogh-Nair at City College, CUNY synthesizing dendromers and moved on to Queens College, CUNY to write her dissertation under the guidance of Dr. Harry Gafney. Her doctoral work led her back to her roots in nanotechnology and pyrophoric compounds research. The German publishing house Verlag Dr. Mueller (DMV) published her dissertation on “Synthesis and Photophysics of Dendronized Nanomaterials” in 2009. Receiving her doctorate from CUNY fulfilled the dream of a ten-year-old to get a Ph.D., and although it was in chemistry rather than mathematics, Dr. Hodel is happy since “both chemistry and mathematics are STEM”.
In 2005, Dr. Hodel realized yet another dream when she founded AIDSfreeAFRICA and took off to Sub-Saharan Africa to help people establish the first pharmaceutical production in Cameroon. Over the first 10 years in Cameroon, she consulted with seven pharmaceutical start-up companies. In 2009, ACS awarded Dr. Hodel the U.S. Astellas Award, which is given annually to a scientist who uses his or her skills to better the lives of populations in developing countries. Since then she has published two related book chapters in the ACS Symposium Series. The first, “Chemistry as a Second Language: Chemical Education in a Globalized Society”, was published in 2010, and “Mobilizing Chemistry Expertise to Solve Humanitarian Problems” was published in 2017. Today, she collects donations of scientific textbooks and supplies and recruits chemists to teach in Cameroon. AIDSfreeAFRICA also helps to support local medical facilities and runs a Malaria Free Zone project. Dr. Hodel hopes to soon establish a national laboratory in the capital of Cameroon to run quality control assays of imported pharmaceuticals. After a life of being on the move, she feels she has come home.
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