This article is written for Ada Lovelace Day:
Ada Lovelace Day is about sharing stories of women — whether engineers, scientists, technologists or mathematicians — who have inspired you to become who you are today. The aim is to create new role models for girls and women in these male-dominated fields by raising the profile of other women in STEM.
You can learn more about Ada Lovelace, the Enchantress of Numbers, at FindingAda.com
Today, October 16th, 2012 is a day to celebrate women in science, technology, engineering and math, and bloggers, vloggers and other content producers from all over the world are writing and talking about the accomplishments of their female STEM heros and and inspirations. At the website you can add your own story about a woman in STEM who has had a positive impact on your life.
I wanted to write about a contemporary female scientist, so I asked around to my circle of friends and found Mary B. Mary agreed to let me share her story here, but because she wants to maintain a modicum of privacy, I will refer to her just as Mary.
Mary is a senior scientist for a Twin Cities biotechnology company. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Biology with a minor in Chemistry, as well as an AAS in Marine Science. She’s been fascinated with science since she was a little girl. She recently turned 57 years young, and has been employed in various scientific fields for most of her life.
Mary has been in biotechnology for over 30 years. She started in the field of in vitro diagnostics, and has specialized in the study of allergy diagnosis. She entered the field when scientists were looking for alternatives to patch tests. She worked on developing minimally invasive blood tests that could reliably identify allergen sensitivities. Her main focus was on isolating allergenic components, that is, identifying the specific proteins from cats, grasses, dust mite species, etc. that cause allergic reactions in some people, and developing tests that could detect these allergens. I asked about the processes that were used to extract allergens from their sources, and that led to a story about washed cats; most allergens are water-soluble, and so in order to obtain animal allergens – cats in this example – one would wash the animal and isolate the allergens from the … kitty runoff.
I asked Mary what her favorite field of science is, and she told me that she has a fondness for marine biology, which is how she came to possess a AAS in Marine Biology. She worked on a research vessel for a period in her earlier career. She said it was very exciting and she still remembers the one time her boat was chased by sharks. However, she ultimately found that marine biology is - as she puts it – a really interesting field in which you can easily starve to death. After doing a lot of sporadic contract work, she decided to turn her attention to a more stable career in biotechnology.
When asked what she likes about biotechnology, Mary said that it was the idea that she’s actively helping people. Because she’s been doing this work for so long, she’s seen many advances that have been made in diagnostic testing. She says we can diagnose things now that we couldn’t before, and we can diagnose diseases earlier. People are living longer and have a better quality of life because of the kind of work that Mary does.
Mary has been involved with many types of studies within her field. She has been published in a peer-reviewed journal and has helped author several poster presentations. She has most recently been devoting her attention to development quality assurance. She finds great satisfaction in auditing quality documents and making sure that data submissions are compliant with regulatory requirements. She views her work as essential to protecting the integrity of the data that is produced during the process of her company’s product development efforts.
I wanted to hear Mary’s thoughts on women in science, how she has seen things change for women in her field over the past 30 years, and if she has experienced sexism in her time as a scientist. My asking resulted in a dry chuckle and a big eye roll. Mary says things have improved by leaps and bounds since she entered the field. When she started she saw most of her female peers primarily employed in lower level jobs. She described watching men get promoted into hard scientific and engineering roles, while women – when they were promoted – were shunted into QC or marketing positions.
She shared a story about a specific instance that still infuriates her. Mary had been assigned to train a group of customers. The training materials that she was to use had been written by one of her male peers, and during the training she kept finding errors and even that some confidential company information had accidentally been included. When she brought the situation up to her supervisor, she was told to go to the customers and apologize, to claim that it was her error because it would look better for the company if the mistakes had been made by a lower-level female rather than a male employee. She complied at the time.
She said that sexual harassment policies and awareness have changed the field for women as well. Years ago she and a group of female scientists filed a complaint against a male employee. They were told that there wasn’t anything the company could do because the man was too important to the company to discipline him.
Mary thinks that there are still gaps in her field. She doesn’t see as many women as she’d like in the upper echelons of scientific technology. She wants to see more women R&D directors, more women in executive management, and she laments the overwhelmingly low numbers of women engineers in her field.
But she applauds the progress that has been made. She’s seeing more women being promoted to higher levels than ever before, and more women PhDs being hired. She is delighted to see women being treated as equals in meetings, and notes that no longer are the clerical responsibilities such as meeting minutes being automatically handed off to the women scientists in the room. These days investigations are as likely to be led by a woman as a man, and women are being approached as subject matter experts for technical advice.
But now for the serious questions:
Who are your favorite fictional female scientist villains? Mary and I were both shocked to realize that we couldn’t think of very many women mad scientists in movies or literature! After some head-scratching we nominated Elsa Schneider from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (we thought she was an archaeologist, but according to Wikipedia she’s an art professor. Hmmm…) and Nurse Ratchet from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Mary came up with the best villain: Dr. Pamela Isley aka Poison Ivy. I did some internet sleuthing after the interview which led to a pretty neat article from i09 called From Alexander Pope to “Splice”: a Short History of the Female Mad Scientist.
Who are your favorite female scientist heroines?
- Temperance Brennan from Bones – She’s super smart and she knows it, she’s well-educated, she’s an atheist and a nerd.
- Dr. Ruth Leavitt from The Andromeda Strain – She was tough, smart, a great scientist and she wasn’t a Hollywood stereotype. Have you noticed that when Hollywood makes scientists, often times the men are older and the women look like they just stepped out of high school? Dr. Leavitt looked like she had actually had time to make it to the position she was in. As an aside, we nominated Dr. Christmas Jones as one of the most annoying representations of a female scientist in recent movie history.
Who are you favorite real-life women scientists?
To close out the interview, I asked Mary what is about science that keeps her coming back. She referenced a paper published in Omni Magazine in the 1980s called “Sex on the Gamma Counter” (which unfortunately I can’t quickly find a reference for – halp?), which described that thrill of getting good data, how it can be the best feeling in the whole world. She spoke about how sometimes the conditions are just right: the study goes perfectly, the controls do what is expected, the results lead to a desired conclusion and you feel like a million bucks. Other times you set up an experiment and think it’s going to be a no-brainer, but then the results do something completely wacky and lead to entirely new ways of thinking about an issue or problem. She said that good data is awesome, but “if the data’s not good, it better at least be amusing”.
Thanks for being an awesome woman in science, Mary.