Women in Science Up Close and Personal, Part 2: Role Models Who Inspire
In the second of our series honoring women in science, Pfizer researchers reveal who they look up to.
Physicist Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (and the only one to win it twice), recognized the great beauty in science. “A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: He is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale,” Curie says in Marie Curie: A Biography.
This sense of wonder and awe, paired with her astonishing, pioneering achievements, make Curie a touchstone for many of Pfizer’s women scientists. Kathrin Jansen, SVP and Chief Scientific Officer in Vaccines in Pearl River, NY, says that the way Curie reached her accomplishments was perhaps even more impressive than the accomplishments themselves. “She had to do a lot of self-study because women at the time were excluded from attending university in Poland where she was born and raised. And even though she was appreciated by those who worked with her, she was constantly butting against society and the bias against women.”
“Curie’s determination and remarkable contributions to science, at a time when female scientists were conspicuous by their absence, inspired me,” says Lourdes Contreras, a Formulation and Process Technology Innovation Scientist in the Drug Product Design Department in Sandwich, UK. Suvi Orr, a synthetic organic chemist and Senior Principal Scientist, holds Curie’s well-roundedness in high regard: “Curie was such a dedicated scientist, wife and mother,” she says.
Katherine Johnson, the African-American NASA mathematician who helped put men on the moon, and Rosalind Franklin, the chemist who solved the structure of DNA with Watson and Crick but didn’t get proper credit, are the groundbreaking women Arpita Maiti, a Senior Director in the External Science and Innovation group, looks up to.
A mentor can also become a role model, eliciting admiration that propels nascent scientists to aim high. Biophysicist Kelly Knee, Principal Scientist in the Rare Disease Research Unit, worked with the late Susan Lindquist, who was a professor of biology at MIT. “Sue was responsible for some of the most seminal work on protein folding and was a major driver of the field of prion research,” Knee says. “She got her degrees at a time when there were still a significant number of universities that didn’t accept women, so she was a great role model for defying expectations and following your interests.”
Sometimes the best sources of strength and motivation can be found in a scientist’s own family: “My grandfather was an engineer who worked within the petrochemical industry where he was an inventor and leader. He was a great role model who actively supported me in my love for science,” says Annaliesa Anderson, VP and Chief Scientific Officer for Bacterial Vaccines. “My mom is the scientist I admire most,” says Jennifer LaFontaine, Senior Director in Medicinal Chemistry. “She was always passionate about organic chemistry, and, it turns out, so was I. I’m not sure I would have taken that path without her encouragement.”
Peers at other institutions can motivate women scientists, too. Rose Gonzales, a chemical engineer and Director of Compound Management and Distribution, loves hearing about the innovative projects that mechanical engineer Regina Dugan, the first woman director of DARPA (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and a former employee of Google and Facebook, is working on.
Even role models need role models: Curie herself was reportedly encouraged by none other than Albert Einstein. Just after her nomination to the French Academy of Sciences was rejected, she was urged by the Nobel committee not to accept her second Nobel Prize in person, because it was discovered that she had been involved with a married colleague (who was actually estranged from his wife). During this low point of sexism and scandal, Einstein wrote Curie a cheering letter. On the subject of the negative newspaper stories coming out about her, he advised her “to simply not read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.” Perhaps Curie’s difficulties would have been easier to bear if she knew how many women scientists she would go on to influence, in profound ways. “She was a tour de force,” says Jansen.