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Virginia Cornish '91 is College's first female grad named to full-time faculty post
BACK HOME: Virginia Cornish says the faculty in the chemistry department did a good job of mentoring her; now she's one of them.


In January, 1999, Virginia Cornish ’91 joined the Columbia chemistry department as an assistant professor. That Columbia hired a woman professor is nothing unusual. But Cornish is the first female Columbia College graduate to be hired to a full-time faculty position since the College became coeducational in 1983.

In keeping with her pioneer status, Cornish is teaching a new advanced organic chemistry course offered to first-years.

Cornish majored in biochemistry at Columbia and earned her Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley. At Berkeley, she not only specialized in bio-organic chemistry but also taught the lab and discussion section of a sophomore organic chemistry class and was a teaching assistant for a graduate class in physical organic chemistry, winning two departmental teaching awards. Cornish recently finished working on her post-doctorate degree in biology at MIT.

“Columbia feels like home,” said Cornish about her return to Morningside Heights. She says she had a very positive undergraduate experience and appreciated Columbia for fostering creativity and diversity. “It teaches you to think,” she said. “You get the opportunity to try things and find out what you’re good at.” Contemporary Civilization was her favorite class because it encouraged “independent thinking” and “looking at the broader picture,” both of which she considers at the heart of Columbia and New York City. As an undergraduate, Cornish was a member of the Glee Club and treasurer of the Student Council during her junior year.

Cornish has the highest regard for Columbia’s chemistry department. “The faculty in the chemistry department did a good job of mentoring me,” she says, noting that professors remain focused on teaching despite being at the top of their field and part of a major research university. Cornish cites “Thursday night problem sessions,” in which professors volunteer their time and help students grasp the fundamental concepts of chemistry, as an example of their dedication to teaching. She credits Professor George Flynn, who taught her first-year advanced general chemistry class, with inspiring her to become a chemistry professor.

Being a female chemistry major was a “non-issue,” according to Cornish. She worked as a researcher for Professor Ronald Breslow on a synthetic chemistry project that aimed to identify compounds with anti-cancer properties, and describes Breslow as “excellent as a scientist and mentor” who placed an emphasis on “nurturing bright students.” They kept in touch after her graduation, and it was through Breslow that Cornish learned that Columbia’s chemistry department was hiring. She applied because she was “interested in a position where I could do both research and teaching.”

Cornish views teaching as “half about getting information across to people and half about mentoring.” She considers the latter important because many undergraduates aren’t aware of the options available to them. “I benefited from a lot of good teaching and feel an obligation to give that back,” she said.

And where better than at Columbia?

“You learn a lot about yourself when teaching bright students like those at Columbia, because they ask good questions,” she noted.

Cornish’s advice to Columbia’s female students is to “take the initiative, find out what opportunities exist and run with them. Every individual ultimately must know herself and know what works for her,” she said.

Evidently, Cornish practices what she preaches. Said friend Bonnie Rosenberg ’91, “Virginia decides she’s going to do something and does it.” According to Rosenberg, Cornish describes herself as a “zoomer,” someone who is always busy zooming around, engaging in a variety of activities.

Rosenberg was especially proud to learn of Cornish’s faculty appointment, because science is a predominately male field. But she was not surprised by her achievement.

“She could have done anything and been great at it,” Rosenberg said. “She chose science because she loved it.”