In Rita Colwell’s Memoirs, a Reminder That Discrimination in Science Is Universal – The Wire Science

Rita Colwell in 2011. Photo: Chaman Sond/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

From flipping through my brother’s chemistry book, drawing chemical bonds on walls to doing lab experiments and getting a trinitrotoluene tattoo on my leg – my love for chemistry is a famous fact among family and friends. Sadly, I gave up on that love quite early in my life when my father tried to get me to become a gynaecologist.

Anguished, I gravitated towards the social sciences instead, subsequently giving rise to my interest in science and feminism. I found here a sense of self-gratification, regret and hope in unravelling the lives of women scientists, their struggles and accomplishments.

When I started reading A Lab of One’s Own, déjà vu crept in; I was reminded of books like Hypatia’s Heritage by Margaret Alic, various biographies of Rosalind Franklin, Barbara McClintock and other women scientists – and of course stories about the likes of Anna Mani in India. Even though they lived through different times, cultures and contexts, gender-based discrimination was so common in their lives that it was both the norm and the normal.

Even today, this is true. However, as A Lab of One’s Own asks, how can we keep the wheels turning? After reading the book, it became clear to me that it is more than a biography of Rita Colwell the scientist, science administrator, policymaker and entrepreneur. The book, written by Colwell and Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, goes well beyond complaints and stories of victimhood.

A discussion of the broader concern and vision of Margaret Walsh Rossiter in the prologue resonated with me. Rossiter didn’t want to stop with bringing more women into science; she wanted to bring everyone who had been excluded back – “women of any stripe, African American men, Latinos, other people of colour, immigrants, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, or anyone else who doesn’t fit the stereotype of the white male genius”.

The book proper begins with Colwell’s recurring encounters with existing conventions, including the advice she received against studying science even though she had fared well in high school. I grew up in Bihar, and have met too many bright female students who simply couldn’t pursue higher studies after high school due to socio-economic and cultural barriers. Science was male-dominated; my family encouraged my brothers to study engineering. And Colwell’s writing showed how, though the individual plots are different, the same tropes played out in the US as well.

Talented women in the US struggled to get fellowships and work opportunities despite strong academic performances. In almost all institutions of higher education, women were discriminated against, and denied their due. Ironically, anti-nepotism rules were used mostly against women.

Various feminist movements have highlighted similar cases in India. The #MeToo movement exposed – among many, many issues – the gender-insensitive character of practising science in India. In chapter after chapter, Colwell and McGrayne describe the stories of many women scientists who pursued science despite similar odds. Some were recognised for their contributions in their lifetime, others were only after they had died, and even others not at all.

A Lab of One’s Own
Rita Colwell and Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
Simon & Schuster, 2020

Colwell studied bacteriology and genetics at Purdue University, Indiana, where she also battled against the deeply entrenched discriminatory practices. Together with my own experiences, I sense that discrimination in science is universal.

To avoid competing with established scholars in the field of marine bacteria, Colwell chose to work on Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a species that’s usually found in water and the soil, and is known for its resistance to antibiotics.

When she presented her work at a workshop, Roger Stanier, a prominent scientist in that field, criticised and ridiculed her. Colwell recalled: “I was not his student, not part of his laboratory, and I was intruding on his bacterium, about which he was clearly an expert. Would he have treated a male student the same way? Probably not. More likely, he would have been constructive in his criticism and actually helpful.”

Colwell was offended. More significantly, she anticipated that Stanier’s continued criticism and ridicule could mothball her career, so she set about choosing a different bacterium to study – eventually picking Vibrios.

The part of the natural universe that we are yet to explore with the scientific method is vast. But what we do study in this vastness is determined not only by curiosity or other benign forces. Our choices are also shaped by social considerations. I myself was dismayed by the twisted path that led Colwell to one species of bacteria instead of another. However, she also made seminal contributions to our knowledge of Vibrios.

As she wrote, “A project that started in the crucible of despair turned into one of the best decisions I ever made. Now, fifty years later, that decision has kept me active in one of the hottest fields in the life sciences: microbiomes, the study of all the genetic material in all the microorganisms in a particular environment, whether it be the human gut, food, river water, or the ocean.”

Only a woman of formidable courage, conviction and intellect could have spoken these words. And thanks to her work, we now have an advance-alert system to signal potential outbreaks of cholera, caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, with huge implications for public health worldwide.

Science and government

The chapter on her research work at Georgetown University drew my attention as it reminded me of conversations with senior faculty members in Indian universities and technical institutions, during my PhD, who candidly shared how gender-biases intersect with the recruitment and promotion processes. Colwell recalls how the university, which first hired her, gave her the opportunities to grow and contribute but eventually declined to make her a full professor, despite all her accolades. She subsequently moved to the University of Maryland in 1972.

Her experiences there, as well as at the US National Science Foundation, where she became its first female director in 1998, show how she exemplified a blend of ‘problem-solver’ and ‘team-player’, and her optimism and tactfulness.

As a science policy scholar, I’m keenly aware of how policies influence India’s national innovation system. Reading of her work at the NSF in this regard was enlightening – especially for showing how a single institution backed by political will can research ecosystems that are both sustainable and agile, to nurture innovation and entrepreneurship, particularly in emerging sciences and technologies.

Remarkably, Colwell and McGrayne don’t portray Colwell as a victim of gender-biased science nor as an extraordinary warrior who demolished stereotypes. Instead, her story melds seamlessly with an ethos of scientific practice that has become coincident in the 21st century with fairness and equitability: of a scientist who valued team work, encouraged others to contribute and believed in conversations and dialogues irrespective of differences in viewpoints and perspectives.

Having said that, I wish I had come across a similar text for women who are interested in social sciences, to guide them with sources of opportunities and inspire them to pursue their dreams.

As a postdoctoral scholar working on issues in gender and science, technology and innovation, I found this book rewarding, enriching and amazing. In fact, I even felt a twinge of disappointment that there wasn’t a similar book (from what I know) vis-à-vis the social sciences – a book that told the story of a woman not as someone who made it big and challenged the system but as an exemplum of the need for and importance of perseverance and struggle.

Nimita Pandey is an STI Policy Fellow at the DST Centre for Policy Research, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

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