Receiving Mentorship and Inspiration from Women Scientists

Ellen F resized 600 Madame Curie … Rosalind Franklin … Rosalyn Yalow … Lynn Margulis – wait! The first two names may sound familiar, but the last two?!?

Okay, Madame Curie? Enough said. She is on the Smithsonian’s “10 historic female scientists we should know.” If you haven’t heard her name before, you may want to read a different blog. Rosalind Franklin  may be a little tougher. She was the third member of the Watson and Crick team to discover the structure of DNA but DIDN’T receive a Nobel Prize alongside her colleagues. Okay, but the last two?

In my opinion, 2011 saw the loss of two great women in science, Dr. Rosalyn Yalow and Dr. Lynn Margulis. Although I am not a gambler by nature, I would hedge a bet that you have probably not heard of either of these names. Please indulge me for a moment as I describe some of their accomplishments.

Dr. Rosalyn Yalow won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 1977. In the 1950s she was a co-discoverer of the radioimmunoassay (RIA) technique, which is a sensitive way to measure small amounts of substances in the blood (e.g., hormones such as insulin). This technique is now used for the detection of drugs, cancer, and neurotransmitters (chemical signals in the brain).

Lynn Margulis was a leading evolutionary biologist who proposed the endosymbiotic theory in 1966. This theory explains that the complex cells found in humans actually resulted from more primitive cells engulfing other smaller cells (if my students happen to be falling asleep, I tend to spice up my description by using terms such as cannibalism, cells eating one another, etc. ). Although this theory was ridiculed and rejected in the 1960s, it is now accepted as evolutionary doctrine.

Upon hearing of the deaths of these two women pioneers, I couldn’t help but take a trip down memory lane to my college years and to the women scientists who influenced my science career. This trip seems all the more relevant in light of the current focus on finding ways to excite elementary students—and early childhood education professionals—about STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

I started my research career at Elms College, studying the effects of hormones on development (using the amphibian model system). I collaborated with Dr. Mary Lou Wright, a well-known amphibian developmental biologist and endocrinologist who has received numerous federal grants for her work. The hours were long and at times the work tedious, but as a member of a research team (there were two other undergraduates working in the lab) the experience was invaluable, as it built the foundation for my future career as a scientist. I must admit, the exhilarating feeling of seeing my name published in a scientific journal resulting from the work that I conducted was worth every moment!

My development as a scientist did not stop there. Upon my acceptance into the Master’s Program at Mount Holyoke College (MHC), I was fortunate to work side by side with another great woman scientist, Dr. Jane Kaltenbach Townsend.  Her work on amphibians and marine sponges provided me with invaluable opportunities to work with scientists from around the world in a variety of fields, including immunology, biochemistry, and cell biology. It also didn’t hurt that I was able to conduct research for three summers down at the Marine Biology Lab in Woods Hole. Our work has resulted in numerous publications and we still collaborate to this day.

It was also during my graduate career that I had the wonderful opportunity to personally meet Dr. Yalow and Dr. Margulis. While at MHC, Dr. Yalow came to give a guest lecture about her RIA discovery and during my tenure at UMass Amherst, I met with Dr. Margulis to discuss her research on her controversial theory. Listening to their experiences made me wonder (and even dream) how I might contribute to the field of science.

These four women—Dr. Yalow, Dr.  Margulis, Dr. Wright, and Dr. Townsend—may not have made the Smithsonian top 10, nor are they household names. However, in my opinion, they are on my Top 10 as they helped shape me into the scientist and lifelong learner that I am today. I only hope that through my career I am able to positively impact the lives of our students as these women affected mine.

Ellen Faszewski  is Co-chair of Integrated Liberal Arts and Professor of Biology at Wheelock College. She is a cell and developmental biologist whose primary research interests are amphibian development and sponge immunology. She also has an interest in science education, including work with pre- and in-service teachers as well as in curriculum development.