Talking Science with Mom

If I were an apple I would be the kind of apple that didn’t fall very far from the tree. My father is a neuroscientist, my mother is a cell biologist and I have been working in labs and academic research settings since high school.

As a field scientist studying snow and permafrost in Alaska, I often tell people that I have the coolest job in the world. Simultaneously, I experience some glaring small scale and institutional gender inequity issues at work. For example, there are a limited number of senior female role models.

Lucky for me, my mother is a tenured professor at Yale University who leads a laboratory that studies cancer treatments, among other things. After navigating the system of academic science for over four decades—a system that wasn’t designed for her—she remains extraordinarily successful. While we often touch on these issues in passing, I thought I might gain some valuable insights by having a more in-depth conversation with my mom. To be clear, this is a conversation between two white women and does not even begin to address challenges in science faced by other underrepresented groups.

A recent text conversation with my mom went like this:

(This interview has been edited and condensed.)

Lily Cohen: Mom, why did you become a scientist?

Barbara Ehrlich: I always thought I was going to become a scientist. I remember thinking of myself in a laboratory with colored fluids bubbling—this ten-year-old idea of what a laboratory is. After my second year in college I got a summer job at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. It was a terrible job. I was a chamber maid in the dormitory, because it was the only job that they gave girls back in those days. Boys could work in the apparatus department or in the photography lab, but that wasn’t for us. Boys were allowed to go to a lecture during their break, and girls weren’t allowed. That was 1972, just about the time when the “women’s lib” movement was becoming interesting.

I lobbied one of the professors and became the only girl allowed to go to lectures. I got really excited about the kinds of things people did. At that time I was a math major, and I was pretty aware that I was a reasonable mathematician, but I would never be an outstanding mathematician. After that summer I went back to college and asked Helen Cserr, a professor who had taught in my animal physiology class, if she could help me find a lab. She asked if I would be interested in working in her lab, and it was probably the best thing that ever happened. I loved being in a lab—I looked forward to all the time I spent there.

LC: Sometimes I lose perspective, because obviously a lot has changed in a positive direction. I get focused on how far we still need to come until there is equity or equality, so it’s good to hear these stories.

BE: When I was in college at Brown, there was only one female tenured faculty member at the university. Helen had to be pretty tough. She wasn’t a complainer, but it was clear that she had to fight for everything she got at the university. She was part of a sex discrimination case because women were denied tenure. In the case of Helen there were tapes of a meeting where they said she didn’t need to have tenure because her husband was a physician. This was post Nixon, and they tried to delete parts of the tape, just like Nixon.

LC: Was becoming a scientist in this environment at all daunting to you?

BE: I think I was a sleep walker in some of these issues. Because Helen had been encouraging, it didn’t occur to me that I should be worried. I can’t explain why.

In graduate school my class started with ten students. At the end of the first year we had a qualifying exam, and all five of the males passed and only one female passed: me. That was the first time I was really struck by something like that. I thought I was pretty lucky, but on the other hand I rationalized it saying that the other women had all made mistakes. It was sort of a shock, but I was more interested in doing the science. I didn’t stop to get angry, I just kept moving forward because my advisor was incredibly supportive.

LC: When I was growing up, you talked a lot about gender issues at work. I would often blow them off, which I now regret, and I’m sorry. Is there a moment when you started paying attention, because clearly something changed?

BE: There was no one event that made me become much more vocal. There were all these things that piled on and I tried to ignore them because I really wanted to just do the science. With time it got so overwhelming that I just couldn’t ignore it.

During college, in the lab next to Helen’s lab there was a husband/wife team where the husband was the scientist and the wife was the technician. I told them I was going to go to grad school in physiology or biophysics and they looked at me and shook their heads and said, you don’t need to do that, you just need to marry a biophysicist.

Early on I remember going to the biophysical society meeting where there were about 1000 people and only a handful of women. I was standing near a stairwell with three of my female friends and as the men would come off the escalator, 90 percent of them looked at us and said things like “oh my god, are you plotting against us?” They made comments about how having four women standing together at a scientific meeting was threatening.