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The Rich Legacy of Women in Science: Tenacity, Perseverance and Creativity

A 300-year history of scientific discovery emerges in SLAS2017 Keynote Presenter Rachel Swaby’s 2015 book, Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World. Sharing tenacity, perseverance and creativity, these scientists challenged obstacles and advanced knowledge in the fields of medicine, biology, genetics, physics and more.

American cardiologist Helen Taussig, M.D., battled her way into medical school, overcame a hearing deficit and founded the field of pediatric cardiology. Physicist Emilie du Chatelet died just days after completing a French translation of and commentary on Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia, which took her four years to finish. Russian mathematician Sophie Kowalevski studied the lithographed lectures on differential and integral calculus that her father used to paper her nursery, launching a determined life-long journey of self-education.

“I wanted to write stories about people’s lives – not just a bullet-point list of discoveries and accomplishments,” says Swaby, a keynote presenter at SLAS2017, to be held Feb. 4-8, 2017, in Washington, DC. She hopes that the wit and wisdom of her subjects will capture the SLAS audience in DC as enthusiastically as they have captured the many readers of her book. Swaby will present an overview of the extraordinary women in the book and then dive a bit deeper into their lives and why it matters that others learn about them.

“I want to share the impact that these women made,” says Swaby, a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, NY, whose work has been published in Wired, Runner's World, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and others. She is excited about sharing her book of inspiring women with the SLAS community.

“I want to talk about the themes that have come out of the book, how outside interests matter, and how all of these things can be woven together to make your work stronger. It helps you understand their process and remember the details of who they were. When you have someone with a flair for life like some of these women had, it’s totally unforgettable.”

Women such as Rita Levi-Montalcini, M.D., Ph.D., who pedaled a bike from door to door in her native Italy during World War II, begging farmers for chicken eggs to feed her babies. Swaby writes, “It was a ruse. She needed fertilized eggs for her work.”

The scientist, who the Italian government barred from medicine and research in 1938 because she was Jewish, conducted her work in a secret lab in her bedroom in Turin, and later in another home lab her brother constructed for her when the family fled into the countryside to escape bombings. She carefully examined the chicken embryos, seeking a link between the spinal cord and the development of the nervous system. After studying the neurons in the spinal cord at different stages of embryonic development, Levi-Montalcini eventually discovered that nerve cells grew and died as a normal part of the development process. Fifty years later in 1986, Levi-Montalcini and collaborator Stanley Cohen received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in isolating nerve growth factor (NGF).

“She got things done by taking matters into her own hands,” Swaby says of the award-winning scientist who eventually served in the Italian Senate. “She was quite remarkable!”

Tracing the Unsung Heroes

Swaby has always been drawn to true stories. “I first considered being a fiction writer, but the stories that came across my desk at Wired magazine were incredible and amazing. Working there brought me back into the sciences,” says Swaby, who enjoyed science classes in elementary and high school. The desire to write won over her interest in the sciences as she pursued a bachelor’s degree in English at University of California, Davis. Later, while working at Wired, science began to creep back into her life. Swaby began pitching stories that interested her, particularly those with a science focus.

“I was reading all these science stories and found that I was way more excited about those than I was about any other type of article,” Swaby comments. “I found that it was a great way for me to get involved in the sciences in a different way. It’s nice being a science journalist; your job is to ask why. You get to engage with amazing scientists and ask ‘tell me more about your research, tell me how you did that.’ Most people are really willing to share more information. I write about more than science now, but that was what pulled me into this area.”

After working at Wired for several years, Swaby began a freelance writing career. An early assignment for the website, Gizmodo, led her to write a column about chemist Stephanie Kwolek. "I loved Stephanie. I was so excited about her life and work and I ended up including her in the book,” Swaby says.

It’s easy to see why she was enamored with the assertive American scientist. Swaby writes in the book that Kwolek once told a would-be boss at a job interview with DuPont that he should “speed up his decision, as she had another opportunity pending.” Then and there he offered her the job and she accepted. She needed the job to save for medical school. However, her work for DuPont led her to use chemicals to fashion new, futuristic materials and push aside her med-school plans.

When approached by DuPont to develop a lighter, stronger material to replace the steel reinforcement in tires, Kwolek developed liquid polymers from crystallized ones, lowering the temperature of her mixture as she went. The thread resulting from this process possessed “an incredible lightness and strength never before seen in the lab,” Swaby writes. The thread was Kevlar; the material became a component of everything from oven gloves to space suits and cellphones. As the primary component of bulletproof vests, it has protected thousands of law enforcement officers in the intervening years.

With the Kwolek profile, Swaby found a calling to research women in science. While she was familiar with some of the scientific subject matter that eventually went into her book, she hadn't encountered information about many of the women who populate the pages until she began doing her own intensive research. Without a travel budget or tons of source material on which to base her book, Swaby delved into online university archives and libraries to find good candidates with interesting stories to tell.

“It was difficult to get source material, and I am indebted to some people who have made it their lives’ work to pull out these names,” Swaby says, pointing to Professor Marilyn B. Ogilvie, professor emeritus in the department of the History of Science at the University of Oklahoma and author of books such as The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science. This enormous volume, which covers nearly 3,000 scientists' lives, work and accomplishments, helped Swaby find a launching point for her own research.

“Ogilvie’s work was a great starting point for me. Her entries are fairly brief, but it was enough information to get me started,” says Swaby. Once she had names and dates, she sought collections of letters, scientific papers and other background materials needed to bring the facts to life. Hours of work at the computer frequently forced Swaby to take walking and running breaks in a park near her home to restore her focus and creative drive.

“At one point, I felt I needed something more in geology,” she says. Hours of research later, she found an article about Danish seismologist and geophysicist Inge Lehmann, who discovered that the Earth has a solid inner core inside a molten outer core. Swaby couldn't believe that more hadn't been written about Lehman. "I thought, “Wait! This is such a big one! It’s a 750-mile ball of metal in the Earth. I should have learned who discovered it in the second grade. How do I not know this?” she laughs.

Common Threads in Research

Not only does Swaby hope to shed light on some of the overlooked, forgotten or buried details captured in Headstrong, she also wants to emphasize the common threads of research, such as creativity. “It’s common for people outside science and technology to not know about the creative and imaginative process scientists engage in to develop ideas and solutions,” says Swaby. “They think that scientists go to the lab and work hard to come up with a solution that no one else has thought about.”

One example would be the resourceful approach of bacteriologist Alice Hamilton, M.D., Ph.D., who worked tirelessly to verify in court that a powder confiscated from Chicago school children at the turn of the century contained cocaine. In order to testify in court, Hamilton first had to prove the powder peddled to the children to get them addicted contained an illegal substance. With a lack of test subjects and a jury that frowned on her experimenting on rabbits, Hamilton dabbed the substance in her own eye to prove the effect known to be caused by cocaine. In the book, Swaby quotes Hamilton, “I used to go around the laboratory with one wide and one narrow pupil till everyone was so used to it that they took no notice.” After winning her case, Hamilton, a member and resident of Hull House, the settlement house founded by social reformer Jane Addams, went on to become an expert the fledgling field of occupational health and improve upon toxic working conditions all across the country.

Jane C. Wright, M.D., was a pioneer in chemotherapy who spent 22 years pursuing made-to-order solutions for cancer patients because she believed there would not be one magical cure for all cancers. She took samples from patient’s tumors to experiment, Swaby writes, “using the sample, not the patient, to test-drive a drug’s ability to vanquish the disease.”

“Creativity and imagination were a huge thread through all of these profiles,” Swaby says. “It’s really inspiring. These can be directed in anything you do. New perspectives produce great things.”

She notes that through the different time periods when people profiled in the book lived and worked, “there was a grit, perseverance, a restlessness and an ability to not be daunted when they heard thousands of people telling them ‘No, you can’t do this,’” says Swaby. “Many of these women took those nos and decided that it had nothing to do with them. It was about finding creative ways to get their work done, even when there were road blocks.”

Such as those encountered by cytogeneticist Barbara McClintock, Ph.D. McClintock, a researcher who studied corn genetics at the University of Missouri in 1936 as an assistant professor. She initiated a move to a new lab in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, NY, after feeling her position in Missouri was threatened by the departure of her male research partner. In the more secure and supportive environment at Cold Spring Harbor, McClintock discovered that genes switched on and off and changed locations. When she presented her meticulously researched work, it was met with silence. Swaby reports that it didn’t faze McClintock: “I knew I was right,” she said. It took more than 30 years before she received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for the research.

“You wonder how some of these women survived so many years in the lab,” Swaby says. “Sometimes not receiving pay, working in secret, serving as technicians when they had enough experience and education to be lead investigators, not getting the recognition they deserved until decades later. These factors must have forced so many women to stop their research—if they did not have a stable family life, encouraging colleagues and friends or financial support.”

Connecting People with Science

Swaby connects with some of her other favorite scientists on a personal level. “Because I am a writer, I have a fondness for the Russian mathematician Sophia Kowalevski because she was such a reader and wrote all sorts of things.”

For example, the aforementioned Kowalevski did not contain her studies to the calculus wallpapers in her nursery. She entered a sham marriage in order to get to Europe to study, completed her graduate work and then had to abandon math for a several years until an influential friend could help her secure a teaching position. “It struck me as special how she combined all of her interests. Her interests helped strengthen the others,” Swaby says, adding that Kowalevski’s story is extraordinary.

“She also said something about mathematics that changed my entire attitude about the discipline. I never felt secure or invested in math and struggled with getting concepts to stick,” Swaby continues. “Kowalevski said that it was a mistake to confuse mathematics with arithmetic. Arithmetic to her was a pile of ‘dry and arid’ numbers to be multiplied and divided, while mathematics was a world of elegant possibilities that ‘demanded the utmost imagination.’ It was like poetry to her. It was something where I could immediately feel an emotional response. As I researched her life and work, I could see the creativity and the imagination – the ability to see problems in a different way. It’s something that benefited her in her career, and it changed the way I thought about my own studies.”

This led Swaby to wish that she had approached her studies from a more positive perspective when she was younger. It also led her to repackage her message as an abridged, young reader’s version of Headstrong, which will be released in September 2016. Called Trailblazers: 33 Women in Science Who Changed the World, it is adapted to a younger audience, eight to 12-year-olds. “These are not new profiles, but the same material, edited to suit younger readers,” Swaby comments.

“Initially I thought Headstrong would trickle down to young readers. Someone might read it and share it with their kids,” she explains. “After the book came out, many teachers thought it was awesome, but wanted something for younger kids. I’m glad it worked out. It’s an important time for young students to know about the contributions of women to science and mathematics. They need names to put with the discoveries.”

With two books published and on the shelf, Swaby finds that her research continues every time she offers a formal presentation. She is looking forward to listening at SLAS2017 as much as she is to speaking. "Last year I talked at a Stanford Conference for women in medicine. What I loved from that audience was how much they knew. It was wonderful to talk to the women who are making discoveries now in our time. That’s what I am looking forward to with this presentation," she says, adding that for every story she tells, she receives leads on other women in science.

"I am going to be standing before the people who are doing the same kind of work that I admired in my Headstrong profiles. It’s exciting to observe how research connects through history. When we learn about these discoveries and these women’s struggles, we gain a richer, fuller history of the world and beyond. It helps us in our everyday lives.” 

September 5, 2016