Finding Ada Lovelace

Today (October 16th) is Ada Lovelace Day. The organizers want people around the globe to share “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.”  (Twitterers are using the hashtag #findingada). The story of Ada herself is an interesting one.

I guess my own story is rather typical.  As a 10th grader in Richmond, Virginia, I had to choose a biology topic on which to report.  Most of my classmates chose systems (plants, humans) to study.  My biology teacher saw my lack of inspiration. She took me aside and walked me through a list of the “top ten discoveries” that year.  With a twinkle in her eye, she told me that molecular biology was the wave of the future. She tutored me on a few of concepts (genes, proteins, etc. – remember these were dissect-a-worm days in high school biology!), even showing me papers from the scientific literature.  I completely bit on the hype around interferon‘s promise as a cure for cancer (let’s just say this was in the 70s...). The antiviral function of interferon left me a bit cold, but its anticancer properties were fascinating to me.  Back then interferon had not yet been cloned, so its utility as a human therapeutic was still comic book fantasy. In those days a Finnish group cultured human leukocyte cells at large-scale and challenged them with a virus to produce human interferon.  I remember being fascinated by protein drugs and the heroics needed to produce and validate them. My engagement showed; I received an “A” on my first high school science term paper.  In college I remembered those heroics and aimed toward small molecule drug discovery instead. I majored in chemistry, not biology, laying down the interdisciplinary tracks I’ve been on ever since.  A winding track I was inspired to take by my high school biology teacher –  a woman biologist keeping up with the scientific literature in the days when women could work as teachers or nurses.

The Ada Lovelace Day organizers want to encourage women to enter “male-dominated” fields.  Globally we bemoan the lack of women undergraduates in engineering, math and computer sciences. Because so many women enter the biomedicine and biology fields as undergraduates, it seems surreal that they might still be considered male-dominated.  But just this week I posted a story on hiring bias in academia on the CSUPERB Facebook page. In September Jo Handelsman, well-known for her Scientific Teaching efforts, was the lead author on a shocking PNAS publication exposing bias against hiring women scientists.  This is a deeply rooted, complex social issue reaching far beyond girls playing dress-up and boys playing as soldiers.

We know that academia is not an egalitarian workplace. We tolerate well-funded PIs who demand more lab space, we lift teaching responsibilities off talented physicians, we recruit highly-cited rising stars.  But within academia we persist in seeing ourselves as an open-minded community. We should be shocked that we collectively value female scientists less than their male counterparts.

Handelsman and her coauthors suggest, “that interventions addressing faculty gender bias might advance the goal of increasing the participation of women in science.”  Mike Goldman (FCG/SPC Chair) invited Sue Rosser, San Francisco State University’s provost, to speak on these topics to the Faculty Consensus Group. She’s graciously agreed to join us at the winter meeting January 6th in Anaheim.  Bring your open minds!

Meanwhile – tell stories to a girl in your life about the remarkable women scientists, engineers, or mathematicians you’ve known.



    This entry was posted in Life Science Careers, Opinion, STEM Education and tagged by Susan Baxter. Bookmark the permalink.

    About Susan Baxter

    I'm the executive director of CSUPERB and the editor of this blog. Over my career, I've worked with teams to formulate new herbicide products, to figure out how transcription factors work in combination, to discover protein targets for new diabetes treatments, and to develop software for human population genetics studies. I started a biotechnology career because a couple of companies in Richmond, Virginia, offered me summer internships. Since then I’ve worked in major corporations, small start-ups, research institutions and academia. Now I'm working with CSUPERB, funding promising CSU students and faculty, and supporting biotechnology education and research across the 23 CSU campuses. It is a personal mission of mine to smash the myth of "the right academic pedigree." Biotechnology changes so rapidly that it is extremely limiting to ask students to chart an exact career path, focus on a particular technique, or build a defined technical skill-set. My career advice? Stay agile by keeping your mind open, exploring your own interests, and working alongside excellent colleagues on hard problems.

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