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Encouraging Students: Advice to the Next Generation

Girls, don't let anyone tell you science is only for boys!

Dominique Langevin

© Micheline Pelletier

Dominique Langevin

The future is full of challenges and science needs the special talents of women to help us meet these challenges head-on," writes physicist Dominique Langevin in an online forum of women scientists (www.agora.forwomeninscience.com/agora).

Girls can sometimes be intimidated by science and engineering classes, thinking they are either too difficult or the domain of boys. But many women have found rewarding and exciting careers in these fields—their advice: give them a try!

Dominique, who was a 2005 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science laureate, was steered toward science by her father. "My father had wanted to be an engineer but was not able to complete his studies because of [World War II]," she recalls. So at age 18, Dominique, the older of two daughters, was encouraged by her father to enroll in the École Normale Supérieure in Paris—the most prestigious institution of higher education in France—to study physics.

Today, Dominique is one of the most widely recognized leaders in the study of soft matter. "It is an exciting type of work. I am always doing and learning something different," she says. "And I meet a lot of interesting people."

The more you do research and understand things, the more you want to find out.

One of the accomplishments she is most proud of is understanding the behavior of microemulsions—clear mixtures of liquids that don't normally like to mix, such as oil and water, and are used in many products like cleaners and pesticides. Dominique's pioneering studies have had important applications to the petroleum industry.

Now that her four children are out of the house, Dominique is typically in her laboratory at the Université de Paris-Sud in Orsay from 8 am until 8 pm, although it does not even feel like work to her. "The more you do research and understand things, the more you want to find out," she says laughing.

Entering male territory

Not many girls choose physics as their major in college. As an undergraduate student at Princeton University, Susan McKay was initially pursuing a major in psychology with an interest in a career in elementary education, traditionally a "woman's field." Her adviser, who was a mathematician, suggested that Susan take a course in mathematical physics. Susan tried it and loved it. "It was really fun and I was doing well in it," she recalls.

Susan McKay with daughters Tracy and Betsy

Susan McKay with daughters Tracy and Betsy

By the time she was a sophomore she was hooked. "I found that when I was studying physics the time really flew by," she says. "I loved using math to figure things out." Susan took some time off between each of her degrees—including a brief break following her master of science when her elder daughter was born—but always came back to research. "Sometimes students think that if they take a break they will not be as competitive. But I have seen many students take some time off and come back as stronger students," she says. "We have to get rid of this myth."

Today, she is a professor of physics at the University of Maine. She returned to her original interest in education by creating a research center at the university focused on improving the way in which science is taught, so that more students will want to stick with it. "Teaching is fun and the research is really exciting," she explains. "I always advise students to pursue science. Sometimes they don't even realize that science is something they are good at."

 

Giving science a try

How do you know if science is right for you? "By doing it," says biologist Carol Greider. "If you have the opportunity to get into a lab as an undergraduate and do experiments and you find that you are having fun, it is probably a good choice for you," she says.

Growing up in California, Carol was initially drawn to marine biology, but several experiences in different labs steered her toward cells and molecules. In 1984 she accepted a position as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley laboratory of Elizabeth Blackburn, who was recently named as a 2008 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science laureate.

Blackburn had been investigating how the pond organism Tetrahymena maintained the special caps, called telomeres, on the ends of its chromosomes. Carol set out on an ambitious quest to find a hypothetical enzyme thought to be responsible for maintaining these telomeres. On Christmas Day, nine months after joining the lab, Carol spotted signs of its existence. The finding helped kick off a huge field of research that is helping scientists understand aging and diseases like cancer.

For their work on this enzyme, called telomerase, Carol, her graduate supervisor Blackburn, and Jack Szostak, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, received the 2006 Lasker Award. Often dubbed the "American Nobels," the Laskers are considered among the nation's most prestigious honor for biomedical research.

Carol, now director of molecular biology and genetics at the Johns Hopkins Institute of Basic Biomedical Sciences in Baltimore, Maryland, encourages her students to seek out as many research experiences as possible. "What you think you like may not necessarily be where the intellectual excitement is for you," she says. "Science takes a lot of hard work. If you are excited, it will not feel like work."

For the love of it

Ana Belén Elgoyhen, a neuroscientist in Argentina and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) international research scholar, also encourages her students to pursue careers in research. After completing a successful postdoctoral fellowship at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California, Belén decided to return to her home country. "I have an eight-year-old son and I want him to be raised in this culture," she explains. She was recently named as a 2008 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science laureate.

Ana Belén Elgoyhen

© Micheline Pelletier

Ana Belén Elgoyhen

Today, Belén's research is considered among the best in the world in the field of neuroscience. She would like the scientists she trains to follow in her tracks by returning to Argentina and establishing equally successful labs. "You have to balance what you want in life," she says. "Coming back to Argentina is not the end of a career. If someone is good abroad, she will also be good in Argentina." Explaining her love for science, Belén says, "What I enjoy most is the freedom of asking questions, finding the way of answering them. I am in glory when I find something totally unknown."

Joan Steitz, an investigator with the HHMI and professor at Yale University, shares the same excitement and love for discovery. But Joan did not know what research was when she began her studies. "When I was in college there weren't any women faculty," she recalls. "I knew a few women physicians, so at first I wanted to do medicine."

But after obtaining her B.Sc. in chemistry at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Joan spent a summer in the laboratory of Joe Gall, then at the University of Minnesota. "I had worked in labs previously but only as a technician for someone else," she explains. "Having my own project and my own goals was so entrancing. It made me realize that I really wanted to do a Ph.D."

Joan Steitz

© Micheline Pelletier

Joan Steitz

Joan went to Harvard University in 1963 to join the laboratory of James Watson—the Nobel laureate who had discovered the double helix along with Francis Crick—as his first female graduate student. "At the time I never envisioned I would be a professor, because there were not any role models," says Joan. "I just focused on doing good science rather than on a career."

But after spending three years as a postdoctoral fellow at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, she joined the faculty at Yale University in 1970. (Her husband, Tom Steitz, is a faculty member in the same department.) At Yale, Joan quickly established herself as a pioneer and leader in the study of tiny but important molecules called small nuclear RNAs and small nuclear ribonucleoproteins. In 2001, she was honored as a L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science laureate.

"I get as excited about a new discovery as when I started," she says. "If it brings you joy to figure things out, then research is something you should consider."