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 escaped the narrow expectations of her Italian immigrant family to become a groundbreaking microbiologist and ecologist who tracked down how cholera survives around the world, a discovery that would save countless lives. But when she first applied for a graduate fellowship in biology, she was told, “We don’t give fellowships to women.” Colwell could have given up then and there, but she persisted, although a lack of support from some of her male superiors would force her to change her area of study six times before she earned her PhD.
A Lab of One’s Own documents all Colwell saw and heard over the next six decades as she rose to the top of her profession, from tales of sexual assault in the lab to secret systems used to block women from leading professional organizations and getting their work published. Along the way, she also meets women pushing back against the status quo, like a group at MIT who revolt when they discover their labs are a fraction of the size of their male colleagues’.
Colwell’s resistance gives her special gifts: forced to change specialties so many times, she comes to see science as interdisciplinary, which turns out to be key to making new discoveries in the silo-less 21st century. She also witnesses the advances that can be made when men and women work together as equals, such as when she led the team whose work was critical in identifying the source of the anthrax powder used in the 2001 letter attacks.
At once alarming and inspiring, A Lab of One’s Own is an indispensable history of sixty years of scientific progress and a must-read for any woman with dreams of shattering the glass ceiling in STEM.
Rita Colwell is a pioneering microbiologist, molecular biologist, and ecologist 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, and the President of the United States. An elected member of the academies of science of several countries, including the US National Academy of Sciences, she is 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.