The women who taught me science.

Since March is Women's History Month, I thought it might be appropriate to recognize some women who were a part of my history -- namely, the women who taught me chemistry and physics. (This shouldn't be interpreted as a slight against the women who taught me biology -- I simply don't remember them as well -- nor against the men who taught me science. They made an impact on me, but this post isn't about them.)

I didn't realize it until just now, but none of my science teachers in junior high or high school were women. That strikes me as kind of weird. In contrast, during my undergraduate career, 7/10 of my chemistry professors and 2/3 of my physics professors were women. (Granted, I went to a women's college, but the faculty was pretty close to evenly balanced between men and women.)

These women were very serious about the science they were teaching. Their intelligence was formidable, their standards were uncompromising, and their research was fascinating.

They sometimes scared me, but not because they were making the case that science is scary. Rather, they scared me because they believed that we were capable of better work, of broader and deeper understanding, than we believed we could muster. Because they seemed to believe so fiercely that we could master impressive bodies of knowledge, I was scared of letting them down.

In roughly chronological order, here are the women who gave me my scientific education.*

Jean Stanley (second semester organic chemistry, Wellesley College)

My first semester of organic chemistry was not good. It was taught by a visiting professor who seemed happy to give the pre-meds in the course stuff to memorize, but who would never slow down to explain why the electrons shifted this way and not that way.
Thus, I arrived at the second semester of organic chemistry underprepared and hanging on for dear life. Jean Stanley did not make an organic chemist out of me. However, she left two things etched deeply into my memory.

The first: a midterm on which the whole class performed worse than expected. Rather than chewing us out for being bad students, she said, "Some of the responsibility for your performance is on me. I need to re-examine how I'm explaining this material to make sure it gets through." This was the first time I had ever heard a teacher voice such a clear recognition that student and teacher share responsibility for making learning happen.

The second: a comment in my lab notebook. I felt like kind of a disaster in organic lab. I had a really hard time getting fancy glassware apparatuses set up without smashing important bits, I couldn't make a decent KBr pellet to save my life, it seemed like my distillations were always confounded when things boiled over, and I have some lovely sulfuric acid holes burned into my lab notebook. Plus, it seemed impossible to get through the experiments in the allotted time (or even the allotted time plus two hours, which was all I had owing to an evening physics lab). And, with all the disasters unfolding as I tried to get through the experimental steps, I hadn't really gotten it together to keep more than a minimally adequate lab notebook.

The set up at my college was such that, more often than not, the professor teaching your chemistry lecture was also teaching your chemistry lab. So Jean Stanley knew how wretched my midterms were and how incapable I was of getting the experiments to actually work. But one week she wrote the following comment in my notebook:

Janet, I expect better from you. You have good skills in the lab, better than most. Do not spoil it by sloppy/incomplete analysis of your data.

I had no idea until that moment that my lab skills were anything like good, let alone "better than most". Finding out that someone who was not afraid to identify inadequacy thought I had good lab skills gave me a push -- something like confidence (though I still felt overwhelmed) plus a commitment to actually see if I could do well in the lab. By the end of that semester, I was.

Phyllis Fleming (first semester physics, Wellesley College)

My first semester of physics was so good, I almost switched and became a physics major. Phyllis Fleming made the beautiful logic of Newtonian mechanics (with calculus, of course) absolutely irresistible. I spent hours working on the extensive problem sets for her class, but the time absolutely flew. (Maybe it was a relativistic effect?)

Dominique Fourguette (second semester physics, Wellesley College)

Electricity and magnetism was a tad less intuitive than Newtonian mechanics. However, Dominique Fourguette made the challenge of E&M both intriguing and satisfying. Sometimes the labs even worked without too much heartache!

Elizabeth J. Rock (first semester physical chemistry, Wellesley College)

Betty Rock is the reason that the physics department didn't get me. She presented physical chemistry as a source of grounding principles to explain chemical phenomena on a variety of different scales. Also, she helped me discover that being comfortable deriving relationships mathematically could more than compensate for a crappy memory. (Take that, pre-meds!)

Betty Rock was also my advisor for my senior thesis research, which is probably a post in itself.

Adele Wolfson (first semester biochemistry, Wellesley College)

Biochemistry did a good deal to redeem organic chemistry for me after my rough start. A good part of this was due to Adele Wolfson's approach of presenting biochemistry as a site of really fun puzzle-solving. She assigned the best problem set ever, in which we were to work out the sequence of three peptides (of increasing complexity) of known amino acid composition. We were allowed to request the results from any of a number of procedures (like trypsin digestion or Edman degradation), and to use as many of these procedures as we needed to be sure we had the correct amino acid sequence for each peptide. The catch was that we were also being graded on the efficiency of our determination -- so establishing the correct sequence with three procedures was better than establishing it with four. It was more captivating than any crossword puzzle ever could be.

Adele Wolfson also gave the best final exam ever, but owing to the honor code, I'm not allowed to talk about the details.

Sonja Hicks (second semester biochemistry, Wellesley College)

My memories of second semester biochemistry center more on lab work than lecture content. Maybe this is because the lab work involved designing and carrying out our own research projects. Sonja Hicks did an excellent job guiding us in this process, especially in helping us frame questions that we could tackle with the resources and time available to us. This taste of something like original lab research was pretty exciting. (The time in the cold-room? Not so much.)

Lisa McElwee-White (graduate level physical organic chemistry, Stanford University)

Who would have thought organic chemistry could finally make sense to me? This was the course that made it so. And, the midterms actually pushed us to extend our understanding significantly beyond what had been covered in lecture and on the problem sets.

Wray Huestis (graduate level biophysical chemistry, Stanford University)

This was the course in which I encountered the best writing assignment ever of my scientific training. Always keeping the "so what?" question on my radar has helped all my writing -- in a variety of disciplines and contexts -- ever since.

To all of these women: Thank you for making a lasting difference in my education -- not just for your course, but for my life.
*Originally, I had hoped to include links to their official bios, webpages, and such, but I was in college before the World Wide Web, and many of these scientists have moved on in various ways. I haven't been able to track them all down on Google, so I'm dispensing with the linking. If any of the esteemed professors mentioned here want to drop me an email to let me know what they're up to these days, I'd be thrilled.

Comments are off for this post

  • J-Dog says:

    Cool! Thanks for sharing. My daughter is a ChemE Major at a large mid-western university, and she owes to her excellent HS Chem Teacher - Thank you Mrs. Bober!

  • Vitis01 says:

    I never get tired of hearing how people struggled with OChem at first and then overcame. OChem at UCSC was the first class I ever failed. It shook me up and was part of the reason I dropped out. Later, an amazing Sacramento City College professor gave me back my confidence.
    My best female science instructor was Lucy Grey. She taught high school Biology, Zoology, and Physics. She was a wonderful combination of soft-spoken power and confidence as I saw it, but she was a newish teacher so she might not remember herself that way. She left to do research on frogs in Shasta county I think. The guy that replaced her is a class-A creationist twit.

  • Super Sally says:

    they scared me because they believed that we were capable of better work, of broader and deeper understanding, than we believed we could muster. Because they seemed to believe so fiercely that we could master impressive bodies of knowledge, I was scared of letting them down.
    You recall my definition of a true mentor:
    Someone who believes in you so persistently and visibly that YOU have to begin to believe in yourself.
    I count my HS math teacher (for 7 semester-credits), Sister Rita Cecile Boyle O.P., as my first mentor.
    Thanks for the replay of those women so important to helping you to become that person into whom you are evolving.

  • PhysioProf says:

    That's a wonderful post! I am sorry to say that I have never had a female mentor or other professor who made an impact on me.

  • Zuska says:

    What a great post - and what a pity you weren't able to track them all down. I'm sure they would love to read your tribute to them.
    Also, I am sooooo jealous of how many women science professors you got to have. In all of undergrad and grad school - I had three. One in math, one in molecular biology, and one in engineering mechanics.