Hilary Godwin: Alone in Good Company

Hilary Arnold Godwin is one of the world's leading experts on lead toxicity. She was the first woman ever hired to a tenure-track position at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and today she remains the only woman at Northwestern with a primary appointment in chemistry. She learned earlier this month that she had been granted tenure. I spoke with her by phone shortly after she learned of the tenure decision. We talked about her experiences at Northwestern, about tenure, and about other issues likely to be of interest to just-getting-started academic scientists.

Godwin's research is in bioinorganic chemistry, particularly the biochemistry of lead. The primary goals of her lab are to elucidate the mechanisms of lead toxicity and the coordination chemistry of Pb(II) in water; Godwin hopes to use what they learn to design fluorescent markers and chelating agents for lead. Her work has been published in Inorganic Chemistry , the Journal of the American Chemical Society , and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , among other journals.

Hilary Arnold Godwin at a Glance...


· Department of Chemistry, Northwestern University


· Ph.D. Stanford University

· B.S. University of Chicago


· NSF Predoctoral Fellowship

· NIH Postdoctoral Fellowship

· Dreyfus New Faculty Award

· Burroughs Wellcome Fund New Investigator Award


· Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award

· Sloan Research Fellowship

· Paul Saltman Award

I began by asking Godwin how the tenure process has affected her work. Has the pursuit of tenure led her to make different choices than she would have made otherwise?

Risky Business

Godwin's choices reflect an interesting balance of risk and risk-avoidance. When it came to choosing an area to study, Godwin took risks. She wanted to increase the likelihood that her work would yield important results, and she hoped to assure that her interest in her projects remained high.

"I specifically and very consciously chose to work on a project that was completely new and different than what I had done in the past," she says. "This was risky, but I was willing to take the risk to do something I really cared about, so that if I failed at least I would have been doing something meaningful, something I wanted to be doing."

Yet Godwin also made some conservative choices to accommodate the tenure clock. For example, she was careful to choose projects that could bear fruit by tenure time. "You have to choose projects that will pan out within that period of time or else you're setting yourself up for failure," she advises. "It's absolutely critical to take that into consideration."

Early in her career, Godwin stuck more firmly within her discipline than she might have done if tenure weren't an issue. "My work is at the interface of chemistry and biology. At first what I did was much more chemical. It was only after I established a publication record in chemistry that I moved on to work that was more biological." The decision to avoid projects that were too biological was a pragmatic career decision, but she feels it has worked out well for her. She was better off, she feels, following this path. "The choices I made pretty much mirrored my growth as a scientist." Now, however, she's ready to press forward. "I want to keep doing work that will continue to make me excited."

Godwin has succeeded in her quest for tenure, but that doesn't make her a fan of the tenure system. "My opinions about tenure are the same as they were at the beginning: It seems to me that it is an antiquated idea." Yet tenure, she feels, is not completely without merit. "Do I think it's a useful process for junior faculty to go through? It has its pluses and minuses. It helps to keep you focused, encouraging you to do things that are good for your career. For the most part I thought they [tenure pressures and professional development] were aligned."

Tenure's main disadvantage? It makes the job all the more stressful and demanding. "It's like being in boot camp," she says. For Godwin the main sources of stress were the often-overwhelming workload and the pressure of having others depend on her fundraising ability for their livelihoods.

Good Company

Godwin is the only woman with a tenure-track faculty appointment primarily in chemistry on a faculty with 24 members. One other woman has a partial appointment in the chemistry department, but her primary appointment is in biology. How, I asked, does she feel about being the lone female?

"I feel like I'm in good company," she says. Her institution, she notes, is fairly typical of major research universities (see this related story). And for the most part she's been well supported by her department. The department chair, for example, has consistently shielded Godwin from committee assignments. And her faculty colleagues have encouraged her to express her opinions, which has helped her to feel more comfortable and to get things done. "I've been pretty good about communicating my needs. That has been hugely important."

So why, in her view, are there so few women doing science at research universities? It isn't a pipeline problem, Godwin feels, or not exactly. The pipeline is full, but it is also leaky. "Women are choosing other career paths," she says. "We get a low percentage of applications from women."

Young Women and Young Men

Female scientists choose other career paths, Godwin believes, because there is a perception that big research universities are unfriendly to women. "They're afraid the climate isn't good for balancing family and career," she notes. So what can be done to increase the representation of women at research universities? She sees it as a matter of achieving a critical mass. Women would feel more comfortable at big universities, Godwin suggests, if there were more of them. Anything that can be done to make a university seem more family friendly--she mentions clock-stopping tenure policies, onsite day care, and new attitudes about the balance of home life and career--is likely to bring research-university science faculties closer to that critical mass.

Interestingly, Godwin thinks it's a generational issue at least as much as a gender issue. "Changes in the climate that would make women happier," she argues, "would also make young men happier."

Speaking of young men, Godwin is expecting a little boy. He's due in October.

The timing is not, she acknowledges, coincidental. Yet she insists that the decision to delay becoming a parent until after tenure was made freely. "I wanted to be free to focus on my work," she says.

Role Models

Godwin's decision to wait to start a family seems to have made some people--especially students--uncomfortable. There was, she notes, an "almost audible sigh" of collective relief among the department's graduate students when she announced her pregnancy, and not just among the women. "A lot of the male graduate students are excited. They didn't want to think that I had sacrificed everything for this job." This, she feels, gets at one of the main reasons that big research universities like Northwestern don't get as many applications as they would like from qualified female scientists: Graduate students and postdocs fear the personal sacrifices they'll have to make for the sake of their careers.

Which brings Godwin to another reason that might explain why women avoid applying to big research universities: the dearth of good role models. As her department's sole female chemist, Godwin finds that being a role model isn't easy. She has often found it difficult to make choices that are in the best interest of herself and her family but not necessarily the choices a female role model should be making. "Having to be a good role model," she says, "has been a huge stress."

Godwin thinks that women scientists tend to steer clear of research universities because they're afraid they won't be happy there, yet she, herself, sought out the challenge. Why was she different?

"I was stupid," she says, laughing. Despite her levity, she is not unserious. The concerns that lead many women to make other choices are not, she feels, unfounded: "It was really hard. I have found it to be challenging."

Yet, as a student and postdoc Godwin was not intimidated by the challenges of a career in big-university science. She attributes her courage to an abundance of good role models, most within her immediate family. Godwin has not two but four scientist-parents: her father, stepfather, and stepmother are all tenured biologists, and her mother is a biology lecturer. "When I was younger it didn't occur to me to worry about it. I had fabulous role models. And they love what they do. I grew up thinking that's what I should do. And they were my parents, so I thought, if they could do it, I could, too."

Seeing as how she's the only woman on the chemistry department faculty, I wondered aloud if women gravitate towards Godwin's laboratory. Not especially, she answered. Thirty percent of her graduate students are women--three of 10--about the same percentage as the rest of the department, or maybe a bit less. Just as with university science faculties, Godwin believes her lab needs to achieve a critical mass before the women begin to flock there, and her lab is only just now beginning to get a reputation for being woman-friendly.

Risk, Redux

Big-university science may not have a reputation for being the most family-friendly career, but it has its advantages. Godwin was granted one quarter's teaching release time as maternity leave and she traded another quarter for an administrative duty, so next year she has no teaching obligations. A cable modem and virtual private networking software make it possible to do much of her work from home. Her husband also works from home; he's willing ("even eager," Godwin notes) to do his share. So between the two of them they'll have lots of time to spend with the new baby during his first year, and Godwin will be able to ease back in to work when the time is right. "We both love kids and have waited a long time to have a baby," she says, "so we are both pretty excited about it."

Taking the longer view, Godwin and her husband plan to hire a nanny to watch junior at home. Beyond that, Godwin acknowledges, they have no idea what the future holds. "I assume," she says, "that there will be challenges that I haven't even thought about. I guess I'll find out when it happens."

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