Wednesday, June 08, 2005

My encounter with an outstanding woman scientist

The alumni magazine of my alma mater just came out with a profile of six outstanding women science faculty. Their introductory blurb ran:
"So members of the "gentler sex" are less capable than their male counterparts of high scientific achievement? Harrumph! We didn't have to look far ... to find six female scientists who are standouts in their fields."
Among their honorees is my undergraduate thesis advisor, one of only four people (and the only woman) to win the young scientist medals from both of our major professional societies. She is an incredibly driven woman, who demands high standards of excellence from both herself and her students. That can sometimes make her hard to work with, but it has produced excellent results for her career. Research is her focus, 110%. She is doing innovative work and is not afraid to put out big controversial ideas if that the way the data points her.

She arrived my junior year, and I think she is the only tenure-track female faculty member in the department. Since she didn't have any grad students yet, she actively recruited the undergraduate majors to work with her. She was doing work peripheral to my area of interest, but it offered a chance to work in a real research group with an active, invested mentor, so I signed on to do my senior thesis with her. I had one semester to do my thesis, so I spent dozens of hours each week in the lab. I devoted two full days a week to lab work, plus time spent learning background material and writing the thesis itself. I also served as an unofficial TA for her class that semester. All of this put me in good steed with her, and for a while I thought about doing graduate work in the lab, but decided against it because it wasn't a good fit and I realized I couldn't maintain that pace of work for 5+ more years. (One of the few good professional decisions I made at that time)

After I'd made a mess of my MS program, she offered me a lifeline, a once-in-a-lifetime trip to an exotic locale as a research assistant. That trip turned into my M.S. project, and the soul searching I did in the wild led me to where I am today. Not to mention that the technique I learned for my senior thesis has turned out to be an integral part of my later research projects, and is fairly rare in my field and hopefully be useful as I enter the job market.

So I owe her a lot, and she just goes to show that women can be top-notch scientists. So take that, Larry Summers.

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