Did you know that March was Women’s History Month?  I celebrate the history of women every fall  during the course I co-teach as a freshman seminar to UC Davis undergraduates called “Women in Science”.  The goal of the class is to provide students interested in careers in science and medicine with an understanding of accomplishments of women in STEM fields, as well as an awareness of the challenges that women have faced.

We begin the class by highlighting accomplishments of women in science and medicine from a historical perspective and ask the students to prepare a presentation on a historical figure, exploring in more detail her professional accomplishments, support system and challenges faced in her career.  These presentations are one of my favorite aspects of the class, as the students invest a great deal of time and effort into researching the lives of these women. Several themes emerge from our discussion of historical women in science and medicine:

Historical

~ These women had to overcome major challenges in order to carve out a career in heavily male-dominated fields.  One of the women we discuss is neurobiologist, Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini (left photo), who passed away last December at the age of 103.  She was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of a growth factor essential to the survival of nerve cells, having faced numerous challenges establishing a career as a Jewish female scientist.  Here’s a link to the New York Times article published shortly after her death or you can enter her name on Facebook to learn more (at last count she had well over 250,000 “likes”!):  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/31/science/dr-rita-levi-montalcini-a-revolutionary-in-the-study-of-the-brain-dies-at-103.html

~ We have, within a relatively short period of time, moved beyond the days of overt gender discrimination.  The young women in our class find it hard to believe that in their grandmother’s generations many women were still actively discouraged from careers in science and medicine.  The story of Rosalind Franklin (right photo)and her contributions to our understanding of the structure of DNA always results in a lively discussion and I highly recommend the book “Rosalind Franklin – The Dark Lady of DNA” by Brenda Maddox: http://www.npr.org/programs/atc/features/2002/oct/darklady/

~ There is still room for improvement!  One of our goals from this class is to equip the next generation of women in science and medicine with an understanding of challenges they may face and tools to overcome these obstacles.  Last month the gender gap in science was the topic of a special issue of the journal Nature.  This is a must read for anyone in academic medicine – pass it along!  http://www.nature.com/news/specials/women/index.html

Check out the reading list compiled by The Scientista Foundation celebrating women in STEM related fields:  http://www.scientistafoundation.com/lifestyle.html  We would love to hear from you if there are other historical figures or books celebrating women’s careers to include in our discussion.  Post a comment below – and Happy Women’s History Month!