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A few good women in science and engineering

August 14, 2018

 

After writing  "The Heroine Next Door,"  the feedback made me realize that many people do not have insights into the every day lives of scientists. To address this point, I have written this post. Based on the feedback, I was also inspired to write another book, focused on inspirational, female innovators:"A few good women in science and engineering."

 

A heated loop. A bunsen burner. Golden broth solidified in a petri dish. These are the basic tools of the trade for a microbiologist. A test tube rack filled with agar slants can usually be found on the desk. The routine task of lifting a speck of the isolate and spreading it on an agar plate is a ceremony carried out daily in countless laboratories across the globe. In the hands of a Michael Crichton or Isaac Asimov, that ritual can take on an ominous air, as part of a plotline to take over or save the world. In the hands of today’s “empower girls” movement, activists will celebrate if the person holding the loop is a female scientist. After decades of being held back, women are finally taking their rightful place among the scientific and engineering innovators. No longer will they be consigned to bluestocking footnotes of a male colleague's illustrious biography.

 

 

Remember the dark lady of DNA? English chemist and X-ray crystallographer, Rosalind Franklin ,contributed to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite. I talk about her and other female innovators in “A few good women in science and engineering.” Of course, everyone remembers the celebration of NASA's black female mathematicians, as celebrated in the 2016 movie, Hidden Figures.

 

Today, we have come a long way since Barbara McClintock wrote to British geneticist J. R. S. Fincham in 1973, "I stopped publishing detailed reports long ago when I realized, and acutely, the extent of disinterest and lack of confidence in the conclusions I was drawing from the studies." Fortunately for McClintock, her discovery of “jumping genes” or genetic transposition was never forgotten. McClintock became the first recipient of the MacArthur Foundation grant and in 1983, at the age of 81, she finally received the ultimate accolade – the Nobel Prize – for her work on mobile genetic elements. This concept is now taken for granted by subsequent generations when describing specific pathways of antibiotic resistance, viral infections, and other biological processes.

 

And yet it would be easy to replace the myth of the lone male genius with that of his female counterpart. Ensconced in the laboratory or garden, said intellectual, according to the best stories, labor diligently for the benefit of mankind. However, nothing could be farther from the truth in the modern laboratory. Those great discoveries celebrated in the news are usually the product of backbreaking and sometimes tedious work carried out by students and postdoctoral fellows, under the supervision of one or many mentors.

 

Regardless of gender, it can be frustrating to see the most elegantly crafted scientific hypotheses evaporate under the glare of fluorescent laboratory lighting. Enter the culture I spoke of in paragraph one in a lengthy time series, watch it become contaminated with a fungus, spoiling a week’s worth of work, throw your hands up in frustration, and start all over again. And yet, there is something magical, when everything comes together, when that complicated mutagenesis has worked just right, when a fluorescent dye from a jellyfish lights up in just the right region that you were expecting it to light up or, better yet, when it lights up in a totally novel area. That is when the eureka moment hits. That is when it is time to celebrate a success.

 

Yes, discrimination exists and yes, it appears to be subtler than in the past to an observer. But most barriers can be broken down with persistence and many voices. And, in the end, all that matters is the science.

 

 

 

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