By Kathleen Ochs for WOMEN = BOOKS
Posted on January 25, 2010
During my college years in the mid-1960s, the science-math types intrigued by Venn diagrams joked that one example of an empty set was “southern, black, jews.” I’d add that “women, scientists, engineers” is considered another empty set or close to it. Women scientists are still looked upon “as men, cast by the vengeance of the gods, into female gender,” as Ursula Franklin, Professor Emeritus in the School of Engineering, University of Toronto, said to me many years ago when reflecting on her research sabbatical at Cambridge.
But when women scientists win Nobel Prizes, our collective consciousness can be nudged into a better state. As many predicted, Elizabeth Blackburn won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine, along with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak. One friend mine, Erica Golemis, a senior scientist who directs her own laboratory in molecular biology, said when the prize was announced: “Blackburn is wonderful and long overdue for a Nobel.”
All three laureates contributed to identifying and characterizing telomeres, a structure at the end of chromosomes that stabilizes them—analogous to the plastic tip protecting the ends of shoelaces. When Greider worked in Blackburn’s lab, she identified the related enzyme telomerase. For those who enjoy biology and discussions of "big" science, here’s a YouTube clip of a press conference with Blackburn after the prize was announced, in which her happy surprise is evident as soon as she’s introduced:
In an interview with Claudia Dreifus of the New York Times, Greider talked about the pleasure of having her children included in the pictures taken when the award was announced, something male scientists rarely, if ever, have done. When Dreifus asked why there were so many women doing telomeres research, Greider said:
There’s nothing about the topic that attracts women. It’s probably more the founder effect. Women researchers were fostered early on by Joe Gall, and they got jobs around the country and they trained other women. I think there’s a slight bias of women to work for women because there’s still a slight cultural bias for men to help men.
But Grieder also noted that “women do things differently, which is why I think it would be important if more women were at higher levels in academic medicine. I think people might work together more, things might be more collaborative.”
In Elizabeth Blackburn and the Story of Telomeres, Catherine Brady identifies specific ways Blackburn has created a women-friendly workspace, such as offering flex-time for child and elder care and regularly scheduled, personal meetings. (See my review of Brady’s book in the November/December 2008 issue of WRB.)
Another example of women doing science differently is that Blackburn chose atypical subjects—women caring for disabled children—to investigate telomeres’s role in human health. The women were found to have shorter telomeres, which was linked to reduced health. Media often presents happy mothers caring for special children; Blackburn’s reveals the difficult reality behind that stereotype.
I asked a friend’s daughter, a post-doc in biological medicine about Blackburn and Greider’s award. Like many scientists, she found it difficult to talk about the context of science, and so I prodded: Does emphasizing the accomplishments of superstars—rather than the pleasures of doing everyday science—lead to fewer women scientists?
She thought the real problem was that American society is scientifically and technologically illiterate, undervaluing both. Therefore, bright, ambitious women—and men—fail to enter these fields.
True enough. But it’s also true that scientific literacy is inevitably tied to social change. As Ursula Franklin points out in The Real World of Technology (Anansi, 1999), worms, bacteria, and decaying matter must make fertile soil if a tree of change is to grow. Franklin calls this the “earthworm theory of change.” Great scientists, in addition to their talents, stand on the shoulders of many people. It would be good to find ways to honor all.
Blackburn’s award raises another issue about the context of science—that of women, science, and politics.
Politics have certainly played a role in Blackburn’s career. In 2004, the Bush administration dismissed Blackburn and another scientist from the President’s Council on Bioethics because they believed the administration’s policy contradicted scientific knowledge. By awarding Blackburn the honor this year, then, the Nobel commission reinforced its approval of the new directions set by fellow-Nobel laureate President Obama.
In hierarchical societies, those who win awards can influence their fields. Feminists can hope that the innovations Blackburn and Greider have developed—in their personal styles of doing science, in their workplaces, and in their research focus—will lead to more women and feminist men in science, and, one can hope, eventually, engineering and technology.
I wonder if the young post-doc I talked with had the current climate crisis in mind when she talked about American’s scientific and technological illiteracy. As an older woman, I worry there’s not enough time for society to change.
For a study of women Nobel laureates, see Hilary Rose, Love, Power, and Knowledge: Towards a Feminist Transformation of the Sciences (University of Indiana Press, 1994).
Kathleen Ochs, Associate Professor Emeritus, Liberal Arts and International Studies, Colorado School of Mines, taught undergraduate engineering students from 1980 to 2007. Her research covered several areas: the Royal Society of London’s attempt to learn the secrets of artisans to help construct the new science (1640 to 1660), a quantitative study of mining engineers in the early twentieth century, and women in engineering and technology. Her current research focus is “big picture” history in science and technology. Professor Ochs is working on her post-retirement website.