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Women Scientists and the Nobel Prize

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View Ratings | Rate It Headlined to H3 11/25/09

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When Carol Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn got the call, along with Jack Szostak, that they had won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine, they entered a largely unknown group of women whose work in the sciences has been honored.

Rosalind Franklin's work on DNA is now widely acknowledged but it was not recognized by the Nobel Committee in 1962 when it awarded the coveted prize to James Watson and Francis Crick for their work on the double helical structure of DNA. Watson and Crick's work included essential information from Franklin's research, which had been transmitted to them without her knowledge.

Chien-Shiung Wu was a pioneering physicist whose work radically altered modern physical theory and changed the way we look at the structure of the universe. She never got a Nobel Prize, but she was the first woman to win a major award from the National Academy of Sciences.

In chemistry, Gertrude Elion's accomplishments were tremendous. She developed many life-saving drugs, including the first chemotherapy for childhood leukemia, the immunosuppressant that made organ transplant possible, and the first effective anti-viral medication. She was the fifth woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Medicine, despite enormous prejudice against her.

Drs. Greider, Blackburn and Szostak received their Nobel Prize for discovering a key mechanism in the genetic operations of cells, inspiring new research into cancer. Essentially the trio solved the mystery of how chromosomes protect themselves from degrading when cells divide. According to the Nobel citation, they found the solution in the ends of chromosomes in something called telomeres. Blackburn and Greider discovered the enzyme that builds telomeres, called telomerase, and the mechanism by which it adds DNA to the tips of chromosomes to replace genetic material that has eroded. Their work set the stage for further research designed to explore whether cancer cells use telomerase to sustain their uncontrolled growth. This in turn leads to studying whether drugs that block the enzyme can fight the disease.

Ten women have won the prestigious medicine award since the first Nobel Prizes were given out in 1901, but this was the first time two women were honored in the same year. In addition, the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences was awarded to a woman for the first time. Dr. Elinor Ostrom, a research professor at Indiana University, shared the prize with Dr. Oliver Williamson of the University of California at Berkeley. Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize "for her analysis of economic governance, especially the boundaries of the firm," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said. "[She] has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized." In other words, Ostrom proved that communities trump corporations.

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Over the past decade, women have been conducting some other interesting research. As social scientists they've been exploring the gender gap within the sciences. Virginia Valian's book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, analyzed hundreds of studies looking at the status of women in the professions, science and academia. In an interview with Natalie Anger published in The New York Times, Valerian reported that "what seems to happen is that men and women start out on roughly equal footing. " But if you look several years down the line, the differences in their career paths become apparent. The men are earning more, they are being promoted at a faster rate than women." Valian adds, "What makes it hard to understand women's slow advancement is that nothing seems overtly wrong in most work situations."

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and professor at Columbia University, addresses this dilemma in her 2008 Harvard Business Review Report, "The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering and Technology." According to Harvard, the report "examines the hostile 'macho' work environments, extreme job pressures and related factors that frustrate highly-qualified women in what otherwise should be productive and satisfying career trajectories."

Joan Herbers, president-elect of the Association of Women in Science (AWIS) and a science professor at Ohio State University (OSU), says "we know for sure the bad old days are more or less gone. Overtly bad behavior has been reduced. But the invisible stuff is equally damaging." With a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) she is involved in Project CEOS/Advance: Comprehensive Equity at Ohio State. The project is designed to increase the representation and advancement of women in academic science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers through research-based interventions that transform the workplace culture at OSU. Results will be shared with other academic institutions.

The NSF has also awarded a grant to AWIS for in-depth work on issues of gender equity within the sciences. A kick-off conference, "Broadening Participation: A Societal Imperative," drew 300 NSF grantees to Washington, DC in November to discuss relevant issues and ways to address them.

Carol Greider is optimistic. "As a scientist, I know that one data point doesn't mean there is a trend. But I hope the fact that many more women won the Nobel this year is the beginning of a trend in that direction."

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Elayne Clift is a writer,lecturer, workshop leader and activist. She is senior correspondent for Women's Feature Service, columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel and Brattleboro (VT) Commons and a contributor to various publications internationally. (more...)

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