Monday, August 20, 2012

What Are Women in Science Like

To celebrate our new blog, Kat and I are delighted to welcome Janet Greger, author of Coming Flu, a recent medical thriller released through Oak Tree Press. Janet has interesting things to say; we know you'll be interested too.
By J. L. Greger

Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dr. Strangelove created an image of scientists - as aging, un-athletic, males with anti-social tendencies. Comic strips changed the image of scientists to be handsome, male superheroes with big egos (like Batman, Iron Man, and the Avengers). Now TV shows (like CSI, Bones, and NCIS), feature attractive, young women as scientists.

Have the faces of scientists really changed that much?
To a certain extent, the changes in the images of scientists in fiction reflect reality. In 1958, women earned 8% of the doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering in the US. In 1985 and 2006, women earned 27% and 40%, respectively, of the doctorates awarded in these fields. Women held 4.5% of the full professorships in science and engineering in 1973 and 17.9% of the full professorships in those fields in 2003.

Why do I as an author care?
Scientific discoveries offer great ideas for novels, plays, and short stories. Tidbits of science can add a sense of reality to a novel. Many strong-willed heroines can be found among the women scientists of the twentieth century. I’m profiling two famous women scientists and two more typical of women professors prior to 1980 in this blog.
Marie Curie won two Nobel Prizes (physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911) and was the first woman to become a professor at the Sorbonne. Yet the French press persecuted her because of an affair with Paul Langevin, a prominent scientist in his own right. Never mind, she was a widow at the time of the affair.
Rosalind Franklin helped to define the fine molecular structures of DNA with her meticulous X-ray crystallography (a way of picturing the location of atoms in molecules). If she had not died at thirty-seven years of age in 1958, many wonder if she, rather than Maurice Wilkins, would have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with Watson and Crick in 1962.
Elizabeth McCoy was a microbiologist. In 1946 the New York Times ran this headline “Wisconsin University Girl Wins Patent on an Industrial Solvent.” At that time, the “girl” was 43 years old and was only the second woman (outside those in nursing or home economics) to achieve a full professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. No one reported her response, but she was known for her salty vocabulary.
Hellen Linkswiler, a nutrition professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was more ladylike than McCoy, even though her background was probably rougher. As a child, she ate moldy bread because there was no other food in Oklahoma during the dust bowl years. In 1960, a banker refused her a mortgage for a home, even though she was full professor, unless a man cosigned the loan.
With a little digging into the history of science, you can uncover many other interesting characters and weird plot twists for your novels. Have fun digging!
Janet Greger is the author of the medical thriller Coming Flu, published by Oak Tree Press in 2012. Sara Almquist, an epidemiologist, is the lead character.
For more information on Coming Flu and J. L. Greger, go to


  1. Sometimes we forget the courageous women who forged ahead, especially in the field of science. Thanks for reminding us, Janet!

    Billie Johnson
    Oak Tree Press

  2. I knew Hellen Linkswiler personally. She always said it wasn't the big things that were hard as a woman scientist int he 1960's and 1970's. It was the daily annoyances and put downs.

    I'll give you an example from my experience as a grad student at Cornell in the early 1970's. A site visit team from NIH were interviewing graduate students for the renewal of a training grant. One of the 3 male reviewers asked 4 women graduate students why NIH should pay for the graduate education of women. One woman replied -"So we take off some time to have children. It's probably less time than you'll take off in your 50"s for a heat attack." The reviewer choked. Afterwards the 3 reviewers told the faculty that the women students were particularly well prepared for careers in science.

    So being a woman didn't hurt us in the end in this competition, but we were subjected to a tougher scrutiny.

  3. Tougher scrutiny is right. We all have the battle scars to prove it, don't we? And our own stories to tell.

    Great blog highlighting these women's accomplishments for all of us.

  4. Loving hearing [being reminded] of women's accomplishments and love the name Sara Almquist!

  5. If you love her name, maybe you'll love what she does too. In COMING FLU, a new flu strain – the Philippine flu – kills more than two hundred in less than a week in the small walled community nestled by the Rio Grande River. The rest face a bleak future under quarantine. One of the residents Sara Almquist, a medical epidemiologist, pries into every aspect of her neighbors’ lives looking for clues on how to stop the spread of the flu. She identifies promising clues - maybe too many!

  6. many thanks to those who stopped by to read Janet's thoughts. I apologize for mis-spelling her name in the intro and have added cover art.

  7. Really nice blog but the bright blue hurts my eyes. Great post and thoughts on science, women, and writing.

  8. Hi, Lisa
    thanks for your honesty on the bright blue hurting your eyes. It hurt mine, too! since this is a new blog, I've been tweaking it as the days go on, and people have commented.
    I hope this change to a black background works.

  9. Congrats on the new blog! Great stories about women in science. I have a feeling Coming Flu will ensure I get a flu shot this fall.

  10. I want to thank Veronica Lynch and Kat Doran for creating this blog. I'm honored that "What Are Woman in Science Like?" was their initial guest blog. Maybe that's logical because many early women scientists were considered wild women. Actually come to think of it - many women scientists still are considered too independent and a bit wild.
    J.L. Greger

  11. Blog looks attractive! I do have some eye problems, so white on black is very difficult for me to tolerate for very long. Why not make a gray box with black text for the actual text? There are web usability/readability studies posted all over the place that they've been doing since the Web came into being--you might Google some of those up. Most of them will say that white text on black is one of the most difficult reads there is. I had to quit reading WIRED mag because they had orange text on purple and so forth. Aaughh!

    I was a major Marie Curie fan from fourth grade on because we did a "unit" (remember those?) on her in school and saw the old black-and-white film, and I then read the Reader's Digest condensed version of one of the bios of her (remember THOSE?!) in my grandmother's library. Then I went off finding all the info I could about Madame Curie. She wasn't taken too seriously at first until she found Pierre. The women of today are SO lucky. Kids like my niece never experienced the 1970s feminist battles and don't really appreciate this, but we definitely don't want to go back to the way it was. "You've come a long way, baby," indeed. Just ask my 80-yr-old mother about women's career choices in HER girlhood. (Three: teacher or nurse . . . or housewife. And if you kept teaching or nursing past a certain age, you were an old maid. When you married, you often stopped being anything other than housefrau and mama!) Those were the days??!!

    I'd love to participate in posting on the blog, by the way. Our publisher at Oak Tree Press, the beloved Billie Johnson, told us about you. Just let me know how to participate (or you can come preview my style at my or or fun never ends because the disk is always spinning!)

  12. With all the attention to science in the schools, it is nice to be reminded that women have always been on the forefront - especially in the days when they were told that women couldn't be scientists.

    I'd also love to take part in posting on the blog. LOVE the background photo! You can check out my work at There's a link to my blog on the Home page as well as a contact email address.