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December 4, 1997

Book profiling women in science & engineering includes Pitt prof

There is no doubt that women have made tremendous strides in science since Rachel Carson published "Silent Spring" 25 years ago. One way pesticide manufacturers sought to counter Carson's claims that they were poisoning the earth was to dismiss her as a hysterical woman.

Although society today accepts women as astronauts and field biologists capable of living with gorillas, the basic image of the scientist in the public's mind remains that of a white man in a white lab coat.

A new book, though, "Journeys of Women in Science and Engineering: No Universal Constants" (Temple University Press, $59.95, cloth) challenges that stereotype, and many other assumptions about scientists and engineers, through a collection of 88 profiles of women scientists. Women profiled in the book work in the fields of biochemistry, mathematics, neuroscience, computer science, animal science, civil engineering, forestry, electrical engineering, physiology, physics and practically every other field of modern science.

"What I really like about the book is that it doesn't try to pigeon-hole or give a blueprint of women who went into science," said Sandra Murray, associate professor of neurobiology, anatomy and cell science at Pitt, and one of the women profiled in the book.

"You have people from all walks of life, who got involved in science from all different areas," she continued. "I think it is really beneficial to others to see that in some way they can identify with someone in the book and through that identification say, 'This is something I might want to do.'" Murray was selected for the book after speaking at a career workshop for Pitt and Carnegie Mellon graduate students. Three editors of the book are from CMU and heard her. Susan Ambrose is an adjunct professor of history at CMU; Barbara Lazarus is associate provost of academic projects, and Indira Nair is an associate professor of engineering and public policy.

While "Women in Science and Engineering" might not pigeon-hole its subjects, Murray does see one overriding theme in the book: Its subjects all really enjoy their work. "I think a lot of obstacles can be overcome in entering a career, if you really just have a love for that career," Murray said. "That's one of the take-home messages of the book." Murray's own love of science and her struggle to become a cell biologist began when she was 8 or 9 years old and broke her collarbone. While in the hospital, she became very concerned about what had happened to make her arm stop working. She asked so many questions that the hospital staff began giving her their old medical books.

Once she was released from the hospital, Murray began collecting and reading science books. Soon she was entering science fairs, which she thought were wonderful.

"You didn't have to go to class for an entire week, and if you worked it right, you could tell the teacher you needed another week to prepare," Murray recalled.

"My projects were often overly ambitious," she added, "trying to make hard water soft and soft water hard or finding a cure for cancer. They were not patentable things and they never worked, but I had a ball doing them." Biology was an easy subject for Murray. Since her parents allowed her to skip chores if she was reading, she devoured books on biology. Such family support left her feeling that she was not limited by her gender. She often saw her mother pull on a pair of boots and work around the family's moving company. Only when she entered high school did Murray learn that women were not supposed to do certain things. One counselor told her: "You're a girl and you're colored, and colored girls don't become research scientists." The counselor's remarks hurt, but did not discourage Murray. By that time, she already was working as a lab aide at the University of Illinois Medical School and was taking science classes at the University of Chicago. Murray would go on to do her undergraduate work in biology at Illinois and her master's work at Texas Southern University.

Moving on to study for a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, Murray again encountered prejudice against her gender and race. This time it came from a well known geneticist who believed that nutrient-rich or nutrient-deficient environments affected several generations of organisms.

To prove his point, the geneticist took E. coli bacteria and put some in a nutrient-rich environment and some in a nutrient-deficient environment. He then put both sets of bacteria in a nutrient-rich environment and showed through enzyme chemistry that those coming from the nutrient-deficient environment did not do as well as those that had always been in a nutrient-rich environment.

After the experiment, he told Murray: "So, Sandra, if your mother, and your mother's mother, and your mother's mother's mother were in a slave hut and didn't eat well, you should not expect to sit in this class and do as well as the students who are sitting next to you." The remark made Murray study even harder than usual to get a good grade in genetics. She earned an "A" in the course, but still the professor would not back away from his theory. "You know," he said, "I'd very much like you to work with me. You must understand, however, that you have done nothing to disprove my theory." Given Murray's light skin color, "he thought I probably had non-African blood that allowed me to do well" or that she had studied more than anybody else in the class.

Realizing that there was nothing she could do to change the professor, Murray left the genetics department and extracted revenge by creating a successful career and happy life for herself. But she does feel fortunate in encountering such a person late in her education. If it had happened earlier he might have deterred her from pursuing a scientific career altogether.

Overall, though, Murray's colleagues have supported her work. As a woman and an African American, though, there have been times when she has felt isolated and left out. "Even though it's more a case of forgetting than anything else," Murray said, "the isolation hurts people in academia at all levels." In "Women in Science and Engineering," Murray runs down her day and describes her work, which involves the capacity of one cell to send signals to an adjacent cell via structures called connexons. She also studies signal transduction, when one cell gives off a peptide hormone that brings about a response in another cell. To do such work requires a knowledge of molecular, biological, biochemical and morphological methods.

Among the things Murray teaches her student is not to be afraid of a challenge, but to lean into it. "If you're uncomfortable, it means you're growing," she said. "Don't allow yourself to be isolated, find people who will tell you what you need to know. Most importantly, tell yourself you're good, and more than good — damn good!"

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 30 Issue 8

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