“The journeys that have brought each of us here have been long and varied.”
– Ada Yonath (2009, Chemistry)
This article is not about the challenges that women face when pursuing elite STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers. This article is about remembering some of the words spoken by women whose stories seem forgotten, or simply just untold. This article patches together snippets of conversation, quotation, rooted ultimately in voice. That is, fifteen voices. The fifteen voices of the fifteen women to ever win a Nobel Prize in a science field.
Every story needs a background, and the background for this one lies in statistics. There have been 566 Nobel Laureates to win in a science division (physics, chemistry, or medicine/physiology), and 16 have been women (Marie Curie has been awarded twice). In the 21st century 5 women have won a Nobel Prize in a science field.
And while we know these women by their accomplishments, or perhaps not at all, they are not defined by their work or their words, but because a complete understanding of who each of these women was is not possible in this column, we will have to suffice with a small collection of what they said and did. These winners were tough, they were resilient, and they were passionate.
Before WWII Maria Goeppert Mayer (1963, Physics) took an unpaid position at Columbia University after being rejected from paying jobs elsewhere. Irene Joliot Curie (1935, Chemistry) died from leukemia, like her mother. Gertrude Elion (1988, Medicine) graduated from her undergraduate college when she was nineteen. Gerty Theresa Cori (1947, Medicine) refused to give up her research until the last few months of her life. Neither of Rosalyn Yalow’s (1977, Medicine) parents attended high school. Ada Yonath (2009, Chemistry) began working to feed her family when she was eleven. Rita Levi-Montalcini (1986, Medicine), after being turned away from medicine for her Jewish heritage in 1938, created her own lab in her bedroom, adapting household tools for use as lab equipment.
Two of the more recent winners were Francoise Barre-Sinoussi (2008) and Elizabeth H. Blackburn (2009) both winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine.
There was no lack of challenge for these winners, and some of the words they have said about these challenges accompanying us on our day-to-day routines.
– To the Swattie taking a class in a field they have never before explored: “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood” (Curie).
– When the night transitions from late to early as you pull your first all-nighter: “I never see what has been done; I only see what remains to be done” (Curie).
Marie Curie was the first and second woman to receive a Nobel Prize, earning it in Physics in 1903 and in Chemistry eight years later. She literally gave her life to her work, dying from exposure to radioactivity. It is rumored that the lab notebooks she used remain radioactive to this day.
In her banquet speech, Linda B. Buck (2004, Medicine) recognized her desire to overcome a challenge of her gender: “As a woman in science, I sincerely hope that my receiving a Nobel Prize will send a message to young women everywhere…”
Barbara McClintock finally won a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1983 after a long period of in which she did not receive the recognition she deserved. Referring to this oversight in her banquet speech, she says: “Instead of causing personal difficulties, this long interval proved to be a delight. It allowed complete freedom to continue investigations without interruption, and for the pure joy they provided.”
McClintock found beauty in her challenge, and similarly, while difficulties may have marked the lives of these Nobel Award winners, the most abundant quotations are those that ring of the importance of acting, and not simply applying or using, knowledge.
To the Swattie who has worked with another, taught another, and attended a Collection: “The ideas generated are not always the result of one person’s thoughts but of the interaction between people; new ideas quickly become part of collective consciousness. This is how science moves forward and we generate new knowledge.” — Carol Greider (2009, Medicine)
To the Swattie who has had a rewarding and difficult class: “Another thing I would like to say: although the work we did was often tedious and sometimes frustrating, it was generally great fun and a deep pleasure and joy to get an understanding to what seemed initially to be a great mystery.” — Christiane Nusslein-Volhard (1995, Medicine)
Rosalyn Yalow in her banquet speech suggested something that may resonate with a Swattie dedicated to social justice issues: “Even as we envision and solve scientific problems — and put men on the moon — we appear ill-equipped to provide solutions for the social ills that beset us. We bequeath to you, the next generation, our knowledge but also our problems.”
But, even amid work, sometimes we need to occasionally stop and smell the roses. To the Swattie taking a pseudo-spare second to take a walk through the Crum: “My breath is quite taken away by the succession of impressions, this beautiful city and this beautiful golden byzantine hall, the meeting with very many old friends, and the making of very many new ones, […] all of this makes it difficult for me to stop and be serious at all.” – Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1964, Chemistry)
On this campus, writing papers and taking tests, we learn to use and apply the knowledge we obtain, and as we begin to act on this knowledge we can remember the words of Gertrude Elion (1988, Medicine) “The world was not waiting for me.”