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A Big Difference for Science and Medicine

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Friday, October 16, 2009

Dr. Carol Greider may be the only Nobel laureate to have been folding laundry when she got the call.

She was up early, and there was a lot of laundry. After the phone call, she woke up her two children and told them she had won the Nobel Prize. As she told The New York Times, "One of the things I did with the press conference that Johns Hopkins gave was to have my two kids there. In the newspapers, there's a picture of me and my kids right there. How many men have won the Nobel in the last few years, and they have kids the same age as mine, and their kids aren't in the picture? That's a big difference, right? And that makes a statement."

That is not the only statement Greider made with her victory, not the only big difference. I am the last one to explain her field -- "telomeres" research. But when asked why that field has attracted more women than most others, she took the opportunity to explain what it takes for women to succeed, a subject that has nothing to do with telomeres, or even science.

"There's nothing about the topic that attracts women. It's probably more the founder effect. Women researchers were fostered early on by Joe Gall (of Yale University), and they got jobs around the country and they trained other women."

Women need to help other women, she explained, because most men still help other men. "The old boys network" is no longer driven by conscious discrimination; modern men don't say, even to themselves, "I only want to work with men." As Greider explains, "It's not that they are biased against women or want to hurt them. They just don't think of them. And they often feel more comfortable promoting their male colleagues."

But do women "do" science differently? Might they be -- inherently -- less capable or less able, as former Harvard President Larry Summers famously suggested?

For years, feminist theoreticians and advocates have struggled with how to deal with the differences between (most) men and (most) women, how to celebrate what women uniquely bring to the table without playing into the very stereotypes that keep us from getting our seats at that table. Greider, who I am sure spends much more time thinking about different kinds of theories, had no trouble figuring out where Summers was wrong. "Women do things differently, which is why I think it would be important if more women were at higher levels in academic medicine. I think people might work together more, things might be more collaborative. It would change how science is done and even how institutions are run."

But it wouldn't change science. It isn't about the brain's capacity for science. "That doesn't mean that women necessarily have a different way of thinking about the mechanics of experiments. I think it's more a different social way of interacting that would bring results in differently."

Different, and maybe better.

Greider was a 23-year-old graduate student at Berkeley when, on Christmas Day in 1984, she made the discovery that led to this prize. She was working for a woman who had been trained by a man who believed in supporting women. This is not really complicated.

Women succeed the same way men do. Someone gives them a chance. One of the most depressing trends I have encountered of late is women my age, women in their 40s, 50s and 60s, who are unwilling to help the younger women coming into our professions, resentful that it is easier for them than it was for us, dismissive of their desires to balance work and life with greater freedom than we had. What a stupid shame.

Dr. Greider's work holds promise for treating cancer. Imagine what might have been lost had she been unable to find a mentor to support her work. Consider what we have gained because Joe Gall supported Elizabeth Blackburn (who shares the Nobel Prize with Greider, along with Jack Szostak), who supported Carol Greider. And now Greider stands as a shining example to all of our daughters, and sons, about just how big a difference one woman can make.

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