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A Lab of One's Own

One Woman's Personal Journey Through Sexism in Science

A riveting memoir-manifesto from the first female director of the National Science Foundation about the entrenched sexism in science, the elaborate detours women have taken to bypass the problem, and how to fix the system.

If you think sexism thrives only on Wall Street or in Hollywood, you haven’t visited a lab, a science department, a research foundation, or a biotech firm.

Rita Colwell is one of the top scientists in America: the groundbreaking microbiologist who discovered how cholera survives between epidemics and the former head of the National Science Foundation. But when she first applied for a graduate fellowship in bacteriology, she was told, “We don’t waste fellowships on women.” A lack of support from some male superiors would lead her to change her area of study six times before completing her PhD.

A Lab of One’s Own documents all Colwell has seen and heard over her six decades in science, from sexual harassment in the lab to obscure systems blocking women from leading professional organizations or publishing their work. Along the way, she encounters other women pushing back against the status quo, including a group at MIT who revolt when they discover their labs are a fraction of the size of their male colleagues’.

Resistance gave female scientists special gifts: forced to change specialties so many times, they came to see things in a more interdisciplinary way, which turned out to be key to making new discoveries in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Colwell would also witness the advances that could be made when men and women worked together—often under her direction, such as when she headed a team that helped to uncover the source of the anthrax used in the 2001 letter attacks.

A Lab of One’s Own shares the sheer joy a scientist feels when moving toward a breakthrough, and the thrill of uncovering a whole new generation of female pioneers. But it is also the science book for the #MeToo era, offering an astute diagnosis of how to fix the problem of sexism in science—and a celebration of the women pushing back.

Prologue prologue Hidden No More
Graduate student Margaret Walsh Rossiter made a habit of attending Friday afternoon beer parties with Yale University’s eminent historians of science. One day, out of curiosity, she asked the great men present, “Were there any women scientists?” This was 1969, and none had been mentioned in her courses or reading material.

“No,” came the answer. “There have never been any.”

“Not even Madame Curie,” someone asked, “who won two Nobel Prizes?”

“No. Never. None,” was the response. Marie Curie was a drudge who stirred pitchblende for her husband’s experiments. According to some of the world’s leading male academics, we women scientists did not exist.

A few years later, Rossiter, still curious, found herself thumbing through a biographical encyclopedia titled American Men of Science. Despite the name, she discovered that it included entries on more than a hundred women. Rossiter tried to get an academic job to study more women scientists, but no university was interested. And she couldn’t get a grant to do her research independently, because no one else knew enough about women scientists to judge her proposal.

Rossiter didn’t have much money, but, liberating her parents’ second car, a highly unfashionable Dodge sedan, she spent months driving at top speed, crisscrossing the Northeast from the archives of one women’s college to another. Then she expanded her search to the rest of the country, trawling through boxes of records in library basements and attic filing cabinets, finding evidence of women scientists everywhere. A representative denounced her on the floor of Congress, arguing that writing about women scientists was a waste of taxpayers’ money. The resulting publicity helped even more people learn about her mission, and soon Rossiter was planning a book—although one Harvard professor joked, “That’ll be a really short book, won’t it?” A dozen publishers brushed off her proposal because everyone “knew” women scientists didn’t exist.

Nevertheless, in 1982, the first book of Rossiter’s three-volume history, Women Scientists in America, began documenting the existence of our hitherto invisible world. Suddenly, reading those pages, we women in science knew we were not alone. We were the intellectual descendants of a long line of women who’d done significant work. As for Rossiter, she expanded the world of science, founded a new area of study, won a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” and became a chaired professor at Cornell University.

As the story of my life as a scientist, this book tells the human side of this history. It tells what it’s like for a woman to go into a field so dominated by men that women were rendered invisible. It’s about an enterprise in which, even today, many men and women believe the ability to do high-level science is coded by the Y chromosome; in which men are seen as more competent than identically qualified women; in which the more decorated a male scientist is, the fewer women he trains; in which universities hire their junior faculty members from these elite men’s labs.

But let me say from the outset: this book is not a litany of complaints. I have had my own laboratory for almost sixty years, and for every man who blocked my way in science, there were six who helped me. Nevertheless, the scientific enterprise remains a deeply conservative institution filled with powerful men—and some women—who reject outsiders, whether women of any stripe, African American men, Latinos, other people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, or anyone else who doesn’t fit the stereotype of the white male genius.

Science is an institution struggling to shed its past. And every time I hear someone say, with the best of intentions, that we have to get more women into science, I get irritated. We have never had to interest women in science. Everywhere I’ve looked, there have been hidden figures, working in the shadows of their husbands’ labs or in the labs of male allies, in medical museums and libraries, in government agencies, or in low-level teaching positions across the country. There have always been highly capable women wanting to be scientists.

But there has also always been a small set of powerful men who wouldn’t let women in. Decades later, we still have men who can’t believe that they played any role in stopping talented women from following their passion.

So here in this book, I offer some recommendations for what remains to be done to open the doors of opportunity to women scientists—and how women can open those doors for themselves. Because when women speak up despite the forces acting against us, we will succeed. And succeed we must, because the security, economic strength, and social stability—the destiny of every country in the world—depends on us all.
John T. Consoli/University of Maryland

Rita Colwell is a pioneering microbiologist and the first woman to lead the National Science Foundation. She is a Distinguished University Professor at both the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and has received awards from the emperor of Japan, the king of Sweden, the prime minister of Singapore, and the president of the United States. She is the author of A Lab of One’s Own.

Sharon Bertsch McGrayne is the author of five books on the history of science, including Nobel Prize Women in Science, The Theory That Would Not Die, and A Lab of One’s Own, which she coauthored with Rita Colwell. She lives in Seattle.

“In this, an era of changing climate and sweeping epidemics, we need great scientists more than ever. Yet for generations, women scientists have been under-funded, condescended to, denied jobs and lab space, and robbed of recognition for their discoveries and contributions. Rita Colwell has been a leader in the fight to change all that. You will be riveted by the true story of how she and other women scientists methodically undertook to challenge biases and dismantle barriers, using the classic tools of their discipline: facts, data, measurement, and the persistence to try and try and try yet again.”
– Liza Mundy, New York Times bestselling author of Code GirlsThe Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II 

“Beautifully written… as much a call to arms as it is autobiography. An unforgettable tell-all that’s rife with details of insurrection, scientific breakthrough, and overcoming the odds.”
– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

A Lab of One’s Own is both a human and a humane story... wonderfully readable for scientists and non-scientists alike.”
– Dr. Hilary Lappin-Scott, OBE, former president of the Society for General Microbiology 

“Colwell's forthright memoir is an inspiring read for women embarking on a career or experiencing career challenges. The book is also a must-read for those in higher education seeking to support women in S.T.E.M.”
– Library Journal (starred review)

“A fascinating account, full of detail about the crises solved under Rita Colwell’s leadership, among them the fight against cholera and the Anthrax scare during the early part of this century.”
– Dr. France Anne Córdova, former director of the National Science Foundation and former president of Purdue University

“A great read and a profound commentary on the challenges that women in academic science have faced.”
– Dr. Jennifer Doudna, Nobel Prize Winner, professor of molecular and cell biology and of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley

“With her characteristic wit, Rita Colwell has produced a compelling portrait of a better future for science and instructions for how to achieve it.”
– Dr. Jo Handelsman, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery

“A terrific adventure story through the world of science: overcoming the bad guys, forging teams to fight battles, and doing the right thing when needed… Rita Colwell’s rousing memoir is an inspiration.”
– Dr. Ben Shneiderman, professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, College Park

“Colwell’s behind-closed-doors accounts of seismic events – the Deep Horizon oil spill, anthrax bioterrorism attacks, cholera pandemics, Title IX legislation, and MIT’s discrimination against women scientists, to name a few – will inspire generations of scientists to advance knowledge for the greater good.”
– Dr. Michele Swanson, former president of the American Society for Microbiology 

“A refreshingly candid story of how the tenacity and grit of one of the world’s great scientists enabled her to overcome prejudice and push back cultural and bureaucratic barriers to transform a research field that saves lives and open doors for other women in science.”
– Dr. Neal Lane, former chancellor of the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

“Engaging.”
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