So I was looking on my FaceBook feed and noticed an interesting feature from Smithsonian Magazine about women in science. In the biological sciences the proportion of male and female students is about equal through undergraduate and graduate study. Later on there are far fewer women in mid level and senior positions. Why is this the case? I do not know for sure, but I thought I would share how women scientists have shaped my development into a scientist and teacher.
The greatest impact on my career path was made by Mary Beckerle. She is a very prominent cell biologist who currently is director of the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, and is a past president of the American Society for Cell Biology. She has an interesting lecture on the cell biology and genetics of cancer at the iBioseminars website. When I was a Junior I took her advanced cell biology course. One day in class she announced that she had an opening for an undergraduate research assistant in her laboratory. I applied for the position, but I was not offered the job. Not being content with that I went back to her and begged, literally begged, to join her lab even without pay. She still said no, but then directed me to two new faculty that might have positions available. One studied the microtubule cytoskeleton in Xenopus (African clawed frog) and the other studied the polarization of brown algal zygotes in response to light. My main interest through college was in cell and neuro biology; I really liked the electrophysiology labs from neurobiology class. The research in Darryl Kropf’s lab was investigating the ionic basis for a small electrical current that flows through the zygote as the new developmental axis is established. Therefore, I was able to apply my interest in electrophysiology to study these small algal zygotes, thus beginning my interest in plant cell biology. So I have Dr. Beckerle’s rejection to thank for my current research interests.
After working with Darryl for a few years I applied to graduate school and chose to go to Purdue University. It is common in many graduate programs that first year students do rotations in a few labs that they might be interested to join. One of the labs I chose to do a rotation in was with Jody Banks. She is a wonderful geneticist and is, in fact, an academic granddaughter of one of the people featured in the article, Barbara McClintock. Jody studies the genetics of ferns and other lower plants. At the time I was working in her lab she had just published a really elegant genetic model for the sex determination of the gametophytes in the fern Ceratopteris. Working with Jody made me realize that I don’t have what it takes to really think like a geneticist so, although I lover her dearly, I did not join her lab. She was recently featured on NPR for her role in leading the sequencing of a primitive plant called a spike moss, which are believed to be among the oldest vascular plants. The story was called “Decoding the Platypus of the Plant Kingdom“, give it a listen it’s interesting stuff.
Finally that brings us to Baylor. In the normal training of scientists in the US the main focus, well essentially the only focus, is on productive research through graduate school and postdoctoral study. Then all of these well trained scientists start applying for positions at universities, which requires them now to TEACH. Well, we have had little or no experience teaching so it’s like being thrown in the deep end not knowing how to swim. We thrash around at first trying to figure out how to teach our first course, emulating the teachers that most greatly impacted us, but it is impossible to imitate another we have to find our own path. That is where Dr. Adair comes in. She has been teaching for many more years than me and has a more formal background in teaching. She cares deeply about teaching her students the best she possibly can is is constantly researching the best practices for teaching and learning. My association with her has had a profound impact on the way I approach my teaching. You should feel fortunate that Dr. Adair spearheaded the application for the NGRI, I sure do!
So there you have it 3 women scientists that have had major impacts on the progression of my career. So who influences and inspires your future?