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Distinguished Alumnus

Anne Barrett Swanson

B.S., Chemistry, 1970

Anne Swanson

Dr. Anne Barrett Swanson came to NIU in the summer of 1965 as a high school student in a National Science Foundation (NSF) chemistry program. She impressed Professor Joe Vaughn, who recalls, “Anne…exhibited that intangible something that makes an instructor think she can well develop into one of the outstanding ones.” Looking back, Dr. Swanson reflects, “[I]t showed me what I’d need in order to do chemistry successfully in a university laboratory with high lab benches.” This realization was significant, because accessibility has often presented challenges for Dr. Swanson. 

Born with a genetic bone disorder commonly called “brittle bones,” she endured numerous leg fractures during childhood. Because the disorder causes short stature and abnormal joint alignment, Dr. Swanson had to devise ways to access standard-height lab benches and to get around on campus at a time when accommodation requirements did not exist. As Professor Jon Carnahan observes, “Anne never allowed [her disability] to hinder her personal, academic, or professional success.” As an undergraduate student, she co-authored an article published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, earned awards as an outstanding freshman and then an outstanding senior in chemistry, and graduated from NIU with a 4.0 GPA in 1970. Dr. Swanson went on to earn her Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1975. 

After graduating, she initially worked as a researcher at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research at the University of Wisconsin. In 1979, she turned to teaching, first at Edgewood College in Madison (where she also became department chair), then at The College of St. Catherine (St. Paul, Minnesota), where she was associate academic dean, and most recently at Sonoma State University in California, where she was dean and professor in the School of Natural Sciences. During that time, she took a year to serve as associate program director for the NSF in Washington, D.C.  In 1990, she was selected to receive a prestigious Kellogg National Fellowship.  

Dr. Swanson has co-edited two books, published numerous papers, delivered several keynote speeches, and presented research on a range of topics. In 2004, she was an advisor to the production team for the PBS documentary film, “Freedom Machines,” which explores the concept of “universal design” and dismantles social distinctions between "abled" and "disabled" persons. 

Dr. Swanson’s record of service includes advocating for others. She served for 25 years on the American Chemical Society Board of Directors Committee on Chemists with Disabilities as well as on several committees for the NSF and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). As a consultant to the AAAS, she served as recruiter and mentor for their ENTRY POINT internship program for high-achieving science and engineering university students with disabilities. 

Now retired, Dr. Swanson maintains an active life shared with her husband, who is also an NIU alumnus. As an accomplished administrator, author, professor, researcher, and advocate for accessibility, Dr. Anne Barrett Swanson truly exemplifies the many dimensions of the college’s award for distinguished alumni.


by Shelley Korth