Sometimes we know what we want to do in a general way, but have trouble imagining the specifics. I knew I was interested in science and wanted to ‘do science’, but was unsure what that looked like.
During one rainy summer afternoon when I was twelve, I stumbled upon the 1971 movie ‘The Andromeda Strain’ on our little black and white TV. The subject matter of the movie was compelling — alien viruses and bizarre deaths — but I was more intrigued by Dr. Ruth Leavitt. Actress Kate Reid was perfect as the feisty, female microbiologist. She was strong and funny, and voiced her opinions in spirited, intelligent discussions with her male colleagues. Seeing her, I was able to see myself as a scientist. And then I went to high school…
No one said I couldn’t be a scientist, but I discovered that male teachers taught math and the sciences while female teachers taught history and English. This imagery was subtle and powerful. I was not excluded, but I did not feel welcome. From history, the only female scientist I had heard about was Madame Curie and it seemed her fame was linked with helping her husband. If she had not married a scientist, would she have become one on her own?
My role models at that time seemed confined to science-fiction futures. My enthusiasm dampened and I questioned my choices. I considered forgetting about science and getting a degree in history, which I also enjoyed. During a visit to the guidance counselor, I saw a brochure from a local college for Medical Lab Technology, which featured pictures of happy women in clean white lab coats, working with microscopes and complex machines in big laboratories. The power of images is not in the information conveyed, but the emotions induced.
Seeing the pictures in that brochure, I saw myself there and felt inspired, once again. I had a new plan and was excited. Well… as with most well-prepared plans, something unexpected happened — I got an entrance scholarship to attend university.
Next — University and Class Distinctions
Addendum: During the writing of this post, there were internet discussions concerning the image of women scientists. Now, the problem is not lack of women role models, but the fact that the role models are — models. I realize I am still waiting for a time when “women in science” is not news.