The impetus for starting this new blog came from the announcement that Maryam Mirzakhani had become the first woman, and first Iranian, to win the Fields Medal. I joined in the excitement of many of my colleagues that one of the most male-dominated STEM fields had at last chosen to honor one of its high-achieving females. Because the Fields Medal had been described to me as the Nobel Prize for mathematics, I wondered how many women had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the equivalent honor in my field. To my chagrin, I could not think of a single female awardee. I could recall several male awardees whose work had been highlighted in my coursework: Yamanaka, Schekman, Warren, and of course Watson and Crick. Naturally, I thought of Rosalind Franklin, who is mentioned by nearly every biology professor as the woman who should have won the prize (rightly so, given the groundbreaking nature of her work). However, I could not remember the name of any woman that had actually been awarded this honor. I was not alone, as no one in my lab could either (disclaimer: I did not ask my PI [Principal Investigator] who would likely have listed half of them without blinking an eye).
This lack of knowledge about the most highly honored women in my profession irked me for several days. I wanted to be able to speak of female Nobel Laureates in the same way that female math graduate students can now speak of Dr. Mirzakhani. And so I looked them up. Since the creation of the award in 1901, 207 individuals have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Of these, 11 are women, starting with Gerty Cori in 1947 and ending most recently with May-Britt Moser in 2014. At face value, this number seems shockingly low at just over five percent. The temptation here, for me, is to become angry at the injustice and discrimination behind that low number. However, I think it is also important to remember that the number of female laureates, while small, is still not zero.
Academic departments in the life sciences in the U.S. are in an interesting state in which women are well represented, sometimes even being the majority, at the undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, and even junior faculty levels. But the proportion of women steadily declines as one climbs further up the ladder, which can be attested anecdotally by many women in the life sciences and by research into the issue. As a female biologist in the lower ranks of academia, where women are no longer a minority, it is easy to think of the disadvantages people like me will face as we march steadily towards the gender gap at the top of our fields. How mentors of our gender are harder to find. How advancing in our careers may involve breaking into an “old boys’ club.” How we may have to decide, willingly or otherwise, to choose between career and family. I think that these issues and other related ones are important and should be addressed. However, I think it should not be forgotten in the midst of these efforts that many women have been and will continue to be successful in the life sciences. I believe that if we can remember these women and celebrate their accomplishments, the problems listed above, while still important, will seem less intimidating.
That is why I created this blog. I wanted to create a space for myself and other biologists, both men and women, can recognize and celebrate the women who have been successful in our field and to learn about their research. I hope this space can highlight how far women in biology have come and continue to go, despite how much farther they have left to travel. I will also share my perspective on current events and issues that affect women in the life sciences. Every once in a while, I will also include articles on different topics in biology that I find fascinating, just for fun. It is my wish that anyone and everyone can walk away from this site having learned something valuable. Enjoy!