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Memoir/ A Woman in Science
Through the Spiral Ceiling

By Laura L. Mays Hoopes
The Halstead-Bent Professor of Biology

"The question a scientist asks determines the scope of scientific content. The design of a scientist's experiments is the equivalent of a writer's style. The skill, beauty and depth with which style and content are joined is, for both scientist and writer, the measure of accomplishment, and both alike are stern in the judgment of fellow workers deemed insufficient in either." -Vivian Gornick, Women in Science

Becoming a scientist isn't a slam dunk. I wasn't an early-blooming scientist, even with encouragement from my chemical engineer father. I had a hard time seeing where scientists found the questions or problems they studied. People think science is all about the answers, but if you want to practice science, finding the problems is more important.

That issue came to a boil in 1962, during my sophomore year at Goucher College in Baltimore. Helene Guttman came to substitute for a professor who was on leave. She was five feet of dynamite, never still and always talking. She had short, curly light brown hair that had split ends and flew everywhere. Helene knew it all. I don't mean she was a know-it-all, but just try to mention something you think she hasn't heard of. Of course she was from New York, and that helps when you want to know it all. Maybe it's the confidence they get from the perception that New York is the hub of the universe. "I work on pteridine pigments," she would say, and I'm sure she gloried in the fact that not one person in 10 who heard the name of the pigments would be able to spell the word.

I diffidently mentioned to her that I needed more work hours, and she said, "I have several bottles of frozen flies you can behead for me, if you want."

Oh, boy, not really what I had in mind. But it was money. I worked for her cutting off the heads of frozen fruit flies, because most of the flies' colored pigments were in the huge eyes. I must admit, at times when I was frustrated, I dubbed these flies with the names of certain professors, just before relieving them of their heads.

As I beheaded flies, Helene talked about science; she often said, "Now that would make a good project!" She mentioned many interesting questions in biology, or areas that we didn't yet understand. She seemed to spout these unsolved problems from every pore. At some point, I asked her my naive question. "Where do problems come from? How do you think up good problems to base a project on?" She looked at me with amazement and didn't answer. I guess she didn't know, since it came so naturally to her.

She said, "Here, I will put up a list on my bookshelf of problems that would be interesting to work on." Of course, those were HER problems.

With today's eyes, I think that I sensed that I was amplifying others' ideas, filling in the details, according to Thomas Kuhn's ideas in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn suggested that in some fields of science people had agreed about the overview and were just doing normal research, filling in the blanks in a form that already existed. In other fields, scientists had not yet put together a grand design. Kuhn explained that it was possible to work in a disorganized field, figure out the next great generalization, and have a huge impact on science. I had a game show mental image of what I wanted. I visualized searching for the end of a thread that would lead through the maze of science to a golden door behind which an important mystery of nature was hiding.

 I heard an amusing apocryphal anecdote about Nobel laureates, Melvin Calvin and Arthur Kornberg. They were sitting in a bar discussing this issue early in their careers. They supposedly decided that Calvin would discover how carbon was captured in photosynthesis, and Kornberg would discover how DNA was copied for inheritance. They did, and voila! Nobel prizes for both. I heard that they later wore satin prize-fighter robes with the years of their Nobel prizes on them to a Stanford University event. Is this true? Who knows, but it's the kind of legendary talk about science that young scientists hear. The moral seems to be that if you find the right problem, you will be spectacularly successful in science.

I thought picking a momentous problem was important, but I didn't know how to do it. I wondered about my naive question, decapitated some flies, decapitated some more flies, and looked at Helene's posted "problems list" to see if it would suggest where her ideas originated. It didn't. I sighed and went back to the fly guillotine.

 Finally, almost imperceptibly, I crossed that line. I came to know enough about biology that I started asking questions. The phrase "critical mass" is out of favor since atomic energy isn't politically correct, but it seemed like I needed to collect a critical mass of information, and then it would start a chain reaction in my brain. By watching this reaction ferment, I would see where the connections were missing or unclear or where they implied a piece of the puzzle which was missing. To continue the male imagery, you could call the insight a bombshell. From fly heads to bombshells was my path, then, and because Helene had no real answers for me, I had to find my own way.

 I first noticed that the barrier was broken when I got ideas for research while reading an embryology text alone in my room. I was so pleased when it hit me that I danced a jig, clicking my heels until the students downstairs banged on the ceiling.

The process I went through, trying to understand where questions and problems come from, has made me more interested in students trying to make this leap. Students want to start with a pre-existing problem; it's a struggle to get them to take a risk. They typically look for their own golden doors when they start to design a senior thesis question they want to answer. It's particularly hard for very bright students, who easily criticize published experiments; quick critical analysis can nip creativity in the bud.

I can say I'm a scientist, and proudly so, but I'm also a teacher who wants to produce more scientists. I exulted when the Ph.D. advisor of one of my former students said, "She was trembling with excitement when she told me about her results!" He begged me to send him more students who understand the thrill of research, and I know why. One of the joys of my academic life is working with students who are in the process of finding their own threads leading them to the golden doors they want to open.

This essay is a chapter excerpted from Professor Laura Hoopes' forthcoming book, Breaking Through the Spiral Ceiling: An American Woman Becomes a DNA_Scientist.

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