Beyond the Legend of Marie Curie: Role Models and Mentors for Women in Chemistry

Beyond the Legend of Marie Curie: Role Models and Mentors for Women in Chemistry

Although a number of the women interviewed spoke with enthusiasm about their experiences with male mentors, they simply did not have the option of looking to other women. Amy H. Newman, of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explained:

I was the first person to be tenured through the tenure track system in this institution. So, in terms of women mentors, I really had none, still have none, have colleagues, had people I’ve observed. I have people I have talked with over the years, but no one really took me under their wing (Newman Oral History, p. 72).

Guidance, assistance, and mentoring can come from many places, and one might assume that a scientific advisor would be the logical resource. Still, a recent study from the Center for American Progress argues that female post-doctorates in the sciences are much more likely than men to feel “isolation or alienation” instead of encouragement from those advisors who should be mentoring them (Goulden, Frasch, and Mason, p. 15). In many instances the scientific advisor guides the research but offers little else in the way of mentorship. Networks and peer support were often crucial to those women who did persist. Mentors offer both students and young professionals the gifts of experience and insight. While the benefits of mentoring are well-documented, it can be easy to forget all of the things that a mentor can offer and all of the things young professional chemists must learn. Unfortunately, many of the needed skills are beyond the scope of research courses and laboratory work, including how to: manage a research laboratory, communicate effectively with peers and colleagues, teach students in the classroom and/or laboratory, write grants, publish research articles, navigate critical transition points, and allocate resources (including time). When these women desired a chance to meet with female mentors or peers, they could not simply look across their laboratory bench or down the hall as they can today.

While a mentor teaches, she also helps to guide students and young professionals on pathways that encourage personal growth. One theme that was repeated throughout the oral history interviews was the importance of confident decision making, which often develops through working closely with a mentor or advocate. Throughout her interview Donna J. Nelson of the University of Oklahoma repeatedly stressed the importance of learning from others’ experiences, learning from their successes, and learning how they navigated what another interviewee called “shark-infested waters” (Chapman Oral History, 59). Judith C. Giordan said:

Your degree of success is directly correlated to your level of confidence that you can succeed. Not your arrogance, it’s your confidence. I have to say there have been plenty of times in my life that I have had absolutely no confidence. But I’m part Italian, Sicilian, and bravado got me through. […] So, step number one is walk into anything with confidence (Giordan Oral History, p. 82).

Confidence is of paramount importance to accomplish doctoral degrees, post-doctoral research appointments, and overcome any early career difficulties, whether it is sexism, isolation, or the struggles of beginning an independent research career. Susan B. Butts, who retired recently as the Director of External Technology at The Dow Chemical Company, explained, “if an individual lacks self-confidence, it's very hard to deal with a system where you may feel that you're not being treated totally equitably, because it tends to become a little bit maybe too personal” (Butts Oral History, p. 116). Numerous women who were interviewed found their choices questioned and harshly judged. Yet an informed decision, made with confidence and/or the assistance of a mentor, allowed the judgments and critiques of others to be no more than background noise.

Choosing Career and Family

For many women in chemistry and the sciences more generally, Marie Curie was the first female scientist they were introduced to and could be inspired by. When asked about her early inclinations toward chemistry, Mary L. Good explained that they stemmed directly from Marie Curie:

Well, because of Marie Curie, who else? I mean, you know, in those days, there weren’t very many role models around and I had read her material and it was just fascinating to me. In fact, I even had thought about the possibility, at one point, of being able to go to the Sorbonne, but my French was so bad that it was hopeless. My Texas accent and French did not agree (Good Oral History, p. 5).

The legend: Greer Garson as Curie in the 1943 Hollywood film Madame Curie.

Marie Curie’s legend and an idealized understanding of how she did it all acted as a spur to induce many women into the sciences, even if Curie did not act as mentor or role-model to that woman directly during her lifetime. However, one of the few places Marie Curie’s life continues to offer possible guidance for the twenty-first century is the area of career and family balance. Women in chemistry often find that having a career and a family necessitates difficult sacrifices in nearly every aspect of their lives, such as less laboratory time, fewer publications, and decreased quality time with young children and family. Having both a career and a family is an issue that continues to create unique hardships and difficulties for women. Marie Curie’s legend is abundant in this area. According to Eve Curie, “the idea of choosing between family life and the scientific career did not even cross [her] mind. She was resolved to face love, maternity, and science all three, and to cheat none of them. By passion and will, she was to succeed” (Curie, p. 149.). Donna Nelson specifically mentioned Curie when she needed advice regarding her son. “And later on when I was trying to make a decision about how to handle [my son] Christopher…I might mention I drew from history. This is a book on Marie Curie and do you notice this photo of her with her daughter [Irene Joliot-Curie] working side-by-side. And I thought, if that’s good enough for Marie Curie, it’s good enough for me” (Nelson Oral History, 55).

Throughout the Women in Chemistry oral history collection, women spoke about the need for confident decision making, and nowhere more than in their decisions regarding family. Women were judged both for starting a family too early and too late. In 1980 Nelson became the first female post-doctoral fellow to work for the recent Nobel Laureate Herbert C. Brown at Purdue University. She recalls Brown telling her that he had no female post-doctorates in his laboratory.

I didn’t ask, but he explained to me why he had not had any women, and he said because they always get married and they retire. He said, “They get married and then they don’t continue their careers.” And I was dating a man at the time, and I didn’t say anything (Nelson Oral History, p. 15).

In many ways, he told her, women were not worth his time or his funding; however, if she wanted, she had a spot on his research team. Married, shortly before she arrived, Nelson had a baby about halfway through her post-doc. Nelson proposed taking only one week of vacation after the birth of her son. However, she took even less than planned, coming back to work half-time Monday after giving birth on Thursday (Nelson Oral History, 19)! Putting her son in daycare at eight days old, Nelson soon caused Brown, with whom she had developed a close mentoring relationship, to laugh at the idea that female scientists could not have both families and research careers.

However, not everyone shared the opinion that like Curie, Nelson could—or should—do it all. And the naysayers told her directly.

“There in the chemistry department was a female, not a professor...but well, I guess she was a professor...not tenure track. And she knew I was pregnant. She was an old woman. And she...when she heard me say that I was going to only take off a week, she started in on me. She said, “You’re a bad mother. You’re going to be a bad mother. You can’t do this.” She said, “It will be horrible for your child. Your son will hate you when he gets older.” She said, “You will have a completely alienated relationship, and it’s going to,” and oh, she kept telling me all these things that were going to happen. And I just said, “Well, thank you for telling me” (Nelson Oral History, p. 20).

These stories emphasize that no matter what choices women make, there will always be someone to criticize and judge. This fact makes mentors, inspiring figures, and the ability to make confident decisions crucial factors in success. Despite her own confidence, Nelson was judged as having placed too much emphasis on her work and career to the detriment of her future relationship with her son. As a post-doc the option of stopping the tenure clock was not available to Nelson, and in the early 1980s that option would not have been available even had she been a faculty member. The recent departmental allowances for new parents to stop their tenure clock is an attempt to provide equal footing within a department, while at the same time acknowledging the difficulties of balancing a full research schedule and an active publication record with the demands of a newborn. However, women utilize this option more than men, according to a new report from the National Academy of Sciences, Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty (National Academy of Sciences, p. 145). Due to the relative newness of these programs and the inherent difficulty in statistically demonstrating negative data, there is little opportunity to determine any possible detrimental effects stopping the tenure clock may pose. While she chose to take less than one week of leave after her son was born, Donna Nelson could have taken more time. She chose not to do so, returned to her research, and upon completion of her post-doctoral research joined the University of Oklahoma chemistry department, where she would become the first woman to earn tenure in the University of Oklahoma chemistry department.

Reflections on Careers

Learn more about women's contributions to science through CHF's Women in Chemistry oral histories.

Stories from the Field

Listen to career insights and stories of scientific adventures from women in chemistry.