January 29th, 2010 15:40 EST
Women Scientists Deserve Respect
When Carol Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn got the call, along with Jack Szostak, that they had won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine, they joined a largely unknown, small group of women whose work in the sciences has been honoured.
Rosalind Franklin`s work on DNA is now widely acknowledged but it was not recognised by the Nobel Committee in 1962 when it awarded the coveted prize to James Watson and Francis Crick for their work on the double helical structure of DNA. Watson and Crick`s work included essential information from Franklin`s research, which had been transmitted to them without her knowledge. Despite that breach, she remained friendly with them until her untimely death at age 37.
Chien-Shiung Wu was a pioneering physicist whose work radically altered modern physical theory and changed the way we look at the structure of the universe. She never got a Nobel Prize, but she was the first woman to receive the Research Corporation Award and the Comstock Prize from the National Academy of Sciences. Wu, who died in 1997, was also the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her.
In the field of chemistry, Gertrude Elion`s accomplishments were tremendous. By the time she died in 1999, she had developed many life-saving drugs, including the first chemotherapy for childhood leukemia, the immunosuppressant that made organ transplant possible, the first effective anti-viral medication, and treatment for numerous diseases such as lupus and gout. She received a Nobel Prize in Medicine, the fifth woman to achieve that honour, despite enormous obstacles based on prejudices against women scientists.
Drs. Greider, Blackburn and Szostak received their Nobel Prize for discovering a key mechanism in the genetic operations of cells, inspiring new research into cancer. Essentially the trio solved the mystery of how chromosomes, rod-like structures that carry DNA, protect themselves from degrading when cells divide. According to the Nobel citation, they found the solution in the ends of chromosomes in features called telomeres, often compared to the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces to keep them from unraveling. Blackburn and Greider discovered the enzyme that builds telomeres, called telomerase, and the mechanism by which it adds DNA to the tips of chromosomes to replace genetic material that has eroded away. Their work set the stage for further research designed to explore whether cancer cells use telomerase to sustain their uncontrolled growth. This in turn leads to studying whether drugs that block the enzyme can fight the disease. "[Their] discoveries have added a new dimension to our understanding of the cell, shed light on disease mechanisms, and stimulated the development of potential new therapies," the prize committee noted.
Ten women have won the prestigious medicine award since the first Nobel Prizes were given out in 1901, but this was the first time that two women were honoured in the same year. In addition, the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences was awarded to a woman for the first time. Dr Elinor Ostrom, a research professor at Indiana University, shared the prize with Dr Oliver Williamson of the University of California at Berkeley. Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize "for her analysis of economic governance, especially the boundaries of the firm," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said. "[She] has demonstrated how common property can be successfully managed by user associations [and] has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized." In other words, Ostrom proved that communities trump corporations. "Since we have found that bureaucrats sometimes do not have the correct information while citizens and users of resources do, we hope it helps encourage a sense of capacity and power," Ostrom told a news conference.
Over the past decade, women have been conducting some other interesting research. As social scientists they`ve been exploring the gender gap within the sciences. Virginia Valian`s book, `Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women` (MIT Press, 2002), analysed a compilation of hundreds of studies looking at the status of women in the professions, science and academia. In a recent interview with Natalie Anger published in `The New York Times`, Valian reported that "several agencies have tracked the progress of male and female Ph.D.`s in the sciences ... and looked at how they fare on the professional track. What seems to happen is that men and women start out on roughly equal footing. ... But if you look several years down the line, the differences in their career paths become apparent. The men are earning more, they are being promoted at a faster rate than women are." Valian has numerous ideas about why women lag, but she adds, "What makes it hard to understand women`s slow advancement is that nothing seems overtly wrong in most work situations, especially in academia and the sciences."
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York, addresses this dilemma in her 2008 Harvard Business Review Report, `The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering and Technology`. According to Harvard`s promotion of the report, it "examines the hostile `macho` work environments, extreme job pressures and related factors that frustrate highly-qualified women in what otherwise should be productive and satisfying career trajectories."
Joan Herbers, president-elect of the Association of Women in Science (AWIS) and a science professor at Ohio State University (OSU), says, "We know for sure the bad old days are more or less gone. Overtly bad behaviour has been reduced. But the invisible stuff is equally damaging." With a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) she is involved in Project CEOS/Advance: Comprehensive Equity at Ohio State. The project is designed to increase the representation and advancement of women in academic science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers through research-based interventions that transform the workplace culture at OSU. It will involve leadership development for deans and department chairs, peer mentoring for women leaders in participating departments at the university, action learning teams that include administrators, faculty, and staff, and entrepreneurship training for women faculty. Results will be shared with other academic institutions.
The NSF has also awarded a grant to AWIS for in-depth work on issues of gender equity within the sciences. A kick-off conference, `Broadening Participation: A Societal Imperative`, drew 300 NSF grantees to Washington, DC in November 2009 to discuss relevant issues and ways to address them.
Carol Greider, a member of AWIS, says she is conscious of the issues but remains hopeful. "As a scientist, I know that one data point doesn`t mean there is a trend. But I hope the fact that many more women won the Nobel this year is the beginning of a trend in that direction."
(Â©Courtesy: Women`s Feature Service)