Resilience and the Nobel Prize

In case you’ve been asleep, this week has seen the number of scientific women winning Nobel prizes spike: two won this year. I don’t consider this simply as a moment of pure celebration for the cause of women in science, as I wrote elsewhere, pleasing though it may be. It means that the number of women winning in Physics has increased to the grand total of three, and in chemistry to five. Marie Curie features in both those totals. In Physiology or Medicine the number of women winners is the truly astonishing number of twelve. Across all the awards women represent just under 6%. On this rating, equality remains an elusive goal.

This year’s winner in Physics is the Canadian Donna Strickland, a woman whose Wikipedia entry had to be put out fast on Tuesday, when it turned out that the last attempt to get her a page had been rejected (just last May) because she wasn’t regarded as significant enough. Is this another example of the Matilda effect? This concept was introduced in 1993 by Margaret Rossiter who contrasted it with the more familiar Matthew effect (‘to him that hath shall be given’)stating, in the abstract to her paper

‘Recent work has brought to light so many cases, historical and contemporary, of women scientists who have been ignored, denied credit or otherwise dropped from sight that a sex-linked phenomenon seems to exist…’.

That Strickland, at 59, had not ever made it to the rank of full professor might look like her institution not honouring their own, although she confesses the fault is hers for never bothering to apply (and presumably no one thought to encourage her to do so: no mentors or sponsors).

However, her path to a Nobel may have been less uncomfortable than that of a former winner, the 1983 recipient in Physiology or Medicine Barbara McClintock. I’ve just been reading her biography, written by Evelyn Fox Keller just before the prize was announced (A Feeling for the Organism) all those years ago. I have my own memories of the prize, when my father told me that ‘only a woman’ could have had the patience to do what she did. (Goodness knows what he, an unsuccessful accountant, understood of what she did but I do know at the time how riled I was by the gendered remark. He did not live to see me become a professor!)

McClintock’s life seems to have been fairly extraordinary on many counts. Reading the Keller account it is striking what inner resources she must have had to cope with, not just academic insecurity, but insecurity arising from the fact that the universities in the 1930s really did not expect to hire women in research roles as faculty at all. Happy though she was at Cornell, she would not be a ‘lady scientist’, condemned to teach but not research, but insisted on

‘her right to be evaluated by the very same standards as her male colleagues’,

as Keller puts it. That might seem to be a reasonable thing to do, but oh no, it made her ‘problematic’ to her male colleagues who saw her as ‘having a chip on her shoulder’ and with ‘personality difficulties’. How far do readers think we have moved on? Modern female scientists (please not ‘lady scientists’ now as then), neither want favours accorded to them as women, nor to be suffering under the weight of the Matilda effect or any other bias, conscious or otherwise. With Cornell not willing to offer her a faculty position McClintock moved to Missouri as an Assistant Professor but left when she believed they would not grant her tenure, ultimately spending many years at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where she was the only person to be working on maize genetics.

McClintock managed to gain the respect of her colleagues, becoming just the third woman to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1944, but her best work – and most testing times – were still to come. Over many years, by analysing the pattern of pigmentation in maize ears, she was able to ‘see’ how genes were being switched on and off, and what factors controlled this. From this she came up with the idea of transposition just at the time molecular biology and the ‘central dogma’ was taking hold. Her ideas about the ability of elements to move around were simply not comprehensible, let alone accepted by her peers during the 1950s, who were focussing on prokaryotes rather than the eukaryotic maize; these seemed simpler to understand but of course had their limitations for genetic study.

For years she seems to have stopped publishing – but not stopped researching – and worked in isolation with few supporters. Of course, we would not really appreciate all this if ultimately she had not triumphed, with her ideas becoming mainstream culminating in the Nobel Prize. Reading the biography, though, I kept thinking how did she keep going? Resilience is much talked about now and she had the advantage of already being accepted at one level. But that did not stop dismissive comments such as

‘just an old bag who’d been hanging around Cold Spring Harbor for years’

being tossed in her direction. It is hard, as anyone who has had to do it knows, to battle on in the face of negativity and lack of support. Having once been a respected scientist may make it easier in one sense, but the hurt will still be there. Yet she kept going until the field, as it were, caught up with her and was capable of understanding what it was she’d been trying to say for all those years.

Because the book was finished before it was known McClintock had won the Nobel, how she reacted to finally proving her detractors wrong is not discussed. Given the way she comes across throughout the book, I suspect consideration of that would not have been uppermost in her mind. What mattered to her was the science. Understanding what was going on using old-fashioned techniques was her passion; techniques that allowed her intuition, experience and understanding to flourish as she pieced together the jigsaw that ear after ear of maize revealed. Her (interim) tragedy was that she could not convey to her colleagues the intricacies of the inner workings of the genes that her deep knowledge gave her, developed from countless well-thought through experiments.

Resilience, determination, insight, patience, critical thought….the list of attributes a successful scientist requires to change a field, to introduce a paradigm shift, as McClintock did, is long. It does not include the word lady, woman or female. One hallmark in reaching equality in science will be when the newspapers do not have a field day around the gender of prize winners because it just isn’t interesting. There are good male scientists; there are good female scientists. It is only the adjective ‘good’ that matters.


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One Response to Resilience and the Nobel Prize

  1. Laura says:

    I am sure you do not intend it, but your remarks seem rather disrespectful of Prof Strickland. She has been very clear that she chose not to apply for full professor simply because she did not want to bother. The data doesn’t suggest that if she had had proper support and mentoring she would have accomplished something that she wanted and needed but otherwise lacked the confidence and know-how to achieve.

    Even a strong case for full takes a fair amount of effort to prepare. As she said: I’m lazy, I didn’t have to do it to keep my job [nb it’s not a significant after-tax pay increase in Canada], and I don’t do things I don’t want to do…

    I think the world needs more scientists with the confidence and toughness to not get caught up in wasteful academic status games — it’s a little sexist to assume that women aren’t among them.

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