Big strides. Computer scientist Tal Rabin (left) explains cryptography while mathematician Corina Tarnita describes the mathematical models she created of ant activity.

Courtesy of World Science Festival

Women in Science: Their Personal Journeys

NEW YORK, NEW YORK—The venue couldn't have been more fitting. Last night, at a small performance hall in Brooklyn known as the Galapagos Art Space, nearly 200 scientists gathered to celebrate the trials and triumphs of women in science as part of the World Science Festival, a 5-day series of panels and talks on the latest scientific issues and research. Like the creatures of Darwin's famous archipelago, these females often thrived as an isolated species—on isles in a sea of men.

As prominent women scientists took to the stage to chat about their journeys, attendees sipped cocktails named for female science pioneers. One drink was concocted to honor Agnodice, a Greek physician and gynecologist who lived between the 3rd and 6th centuries B.C.E. and dressed in drag because it was illegal for women to practice medicine. Alessandra Giliani, who lived from 1307 to 1326, was the first woman to inject fluids to trace blood vessels and had a beverage in her name. And attendees could imbibe the Herschel Cocktail, at tribute to Caroline Herschel, the first woman to discover a comet, which is named for her, in 1786.

Jean Berko Gleason, professor emerita of psychology at Boston University and a founder of the field of psycholinguistics, said that during her undergraduate days in the 1950s at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the women's college affiliated with Harvard College, women were barred from writing for the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson and excluded from Harvard's Wagner Library for fear that they would "excite men." Things have changed, though. National Science Foundation (NSF) statistics show that women received 67.4% of doctorates in psychology in 2000 and 72% in 2008.

Next, cosmologist and published poet Priyamvada Natarajan traced the origins of her fascination for mapping dark matter and the growth of black holes. Growing up, the Yale University professor wanted to be an explorer because she was enthralled with maps, but she didn't want to go on long, grueling voyages and "didn't want to get scurvy. So I became a cosmologist." Celebrating the calculations of women who classified and cataloged stars for the Harvard College Observatory from the 1890s to the 1930s, Natarajan noted that their maps of the heavens are so accurate that they are still used to calibrate Harvard's telescopes. "We've come a long way. I'm wearing a much more comfortable skirt than them," she quipped. "And yet, it's still not clear to some that women are adept at abstract mathematical calculations." According to NSF, 39 women received Ph.Ds (23.9% of the total) in astronomy in 2008, compared with 25 (24.8%) in 2000.

Emcee Faith Salie, a CBS News Sunday Morning contributor, a panelist on NPR's Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!, and the only Rhodes scholar who performs stand-up comedy, wondered how people react to Natarajan's specialty. "When people hear you're a cosmologist, do they think you're an expert in make-up?" she asked.

Salie introduced Joy Hirsch, a neuroscientist at Columbia University who researches ways to image human brain activity during complex behaviors. Hirsch confessed that she was terrified of speaking about herself. But in reflecting on her passion for her field, she realized that pioneers, the thrill of the chase, and going after what's unknown are in her blood. In the 1890s, Hirsch's great-grandmother was hired to defend a wagon train headed for Oregon because she was such a good shot. Hirsch showed a photo of her holding her great-grandmother's rifle. That frontier spirit informs her teaching. Hirsch tells her students, "If you know what you're doing, you shouldn't be doing it because the job of a scientist is to go where no one has gone before." Approximately 50% of Ph.Ds in biology went to women in 2008, up from 44.1% 8 years before, according to NSF.

Cryptographer Tal Rabin, who works at IBM's T. J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, studies multiparty computations and proactive security. "People often mishear me when I tell them what I do. They say 'Oh, you're a photographer,' or, 'You're a cartographer,' " she said. There are very few women in cryptography, and only three or four others are senior to Rabin. She is surrounded by men at work all day, which is unfortunate, she said, "because diversity is good for any field. People have different ways of improving science, and I'm saddened that there are not more women involved." NSF reports that women earned 22% of Ph.Ds in 2008 in computer science versus 16.9% in 2000.

Finally, Harvard mathematician Corina Tarnita spoke about her career as a mathematical biologist and her recent collaboration with Harvard biologist and mathematician Martin Nowak and sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, also at Harvard, on modeling networks that change dynamically through time in ant colonies. Her interest in math is rooted in her childhood on the family farm in Romania, where her grandmother was responsible for the finances. Her earliest memory was of her mother giving her an apple only after Tarnita solved the problem, "If I have three apples, and I give you one, how many do I have left?" When she was an undergraduate at Harvard, not one math course was taught by a woman, and the first woman mathematics professor got tenure just last year, she said. The NSF study showed 31.1% of Ph.Ds went to women in 2008, 25.3% in 2000.

Working with Wilson changed Tarnita's life and how she looks at life, she said. The research demystified the altruism of worker ants by showing that their behavior helps the queen reproduce more, "a new way of reproducing [in that it] helps someone else reproduce." Wilson was happy with the results, but a few days later he called her at 6 a.m. He wanted her to walk him through the equations she formulated for the model. "The fact that at 81 the man who started more fields than most wanted to learn mathematics was a surprise," Tarnita says. "But that I could explain it to him was a wonderful experience. .... I see it as proof that even though women have a long way to go, ... it reinforced what I always hoped for--that there are people who just want the best person for the job."