Sex and Science

Scientist“Who’s the sweet young thing?” asked a female postdoc.

“She’s MY sweet young thing,” the taller professor who was showing me around the lab said, grinning.

The first day of my first undergraduate lab rotation in molecular biology began strangely. I was learning to run gels to separate the two paired strands of DNA that make up genes, based on the DNA’s melting temperature. DNA fascinated me.

The professor, who had taught my molecular biology class and had taken notice of me when I got perfect scores on class exams, was talking about me while I was only standing about 10 feet away. At 19 years old, I couldn’t argue with him saying I was young. But I had never thought of myself as sweet. Maybe silent was mistaken for sweet. Or avoiding conflict was alluring. I don’t know.

But within a month police arrested him trying to break into my house a few miles from the lab. I got out of the shower and was drying my hair when I saw him banging on the windows, then the doors, yelling, trying to get in. He couldn’t take no for an answer. It went to court; he got six months probation for stalking.

My second lab experience the next year was in cell bioogy, culturing human cancer cells in plastic jars, and later, in the abdomens of mice with defective immune systems. This was difficult work with a steep learning curve, and challenging. But in one way it was no better than the first.

“I know it’s you when I hear you coming, the way you walk,” the lab’s middle-aged professor said to me one afternoon. “Shug, shug, shug,” he imitated my shuffling steps. “You have a way of walking,” he went on, “it’s an understated sensuality.”

At the time, I was engaged to one of his graduate students. The professor had no shame.

A few years later in a graduate school rotation, the lab’s head bought me potted paperwhite flowers in bloom, and Perugino chocolates, on Valentine’s Day. I couldn’t appreciate them, and also didn’t enjoy his habit of brushing his hands along mine each time he taught me something new, like how to develop film in the darkroom. The other female graduate student had similar experiences with him. “Don’t go into a room alone with him,” she warned. I was married at the time and he was a friend of my husband.

Farther down the road in my journey as a scientist, Barbara McClintock, who won a Nobel Prize in 1983, became my mentor at Cold Spring Laboratories where I completed my PhD. With her, I finally experienced the power of a woman fulfilled in her work.

Looking back now, I find it strange that I didn’t speak up, protest, demand apologies from these men. I couldn’t learn, or go about my work, or even walk around the lab in peace. But that’s how it was. Sex, in science, was an underlying theme in the dozen labs I joined over the years. Many of the women I knew in science were sexualized and marginalized, few became my friends.

These few examples are some of the reasons I have so much admiration for women who succeed in science. To focus, learn, become skilled, and move up in an environment dominated by men is difficult. I’m thankful to groups like 500 women scientists and trends like #WomenInScience that highlight women scientists and share their stories as role models for other young women.

The more strong, smart women we can see in science, the less men will be able to disregard the women working next to them as mere objects of desire.

Photo: The author as a young scientist