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A Lab of Her Own

Leading endocrinologist offers insights, laughs about her career as researcher

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March 12, 2010

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Neena Schwartz, professor emerita in Northwestern's department of neurobiology and physiology and author of a new autobiography, became a scientist at a time when few women ventured past the lab door.

One of the world's most respected endocrinologists, she co-founded the Association of Women in Science, was the first to locate the important hormone inhibin in the ovary, served as acting dean of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences (1996-1997) and was founding director of the Northwestern University Center for Reproductive Science.

Yet on her first day of work in 1954, her male chairman asked her to pour the tea. "You can either laugh at that or get mad," she said. "But the truth is, I was the only woman in the department."

Deciding that the journey of a woman scientist was a seldom-told yet valuable story, Schwartz recently published an autobiography titled "A Lab of My Own." Beginning with her childhood in Baltimore, the book weaves together an insider's portrayal of life in a lab with Schwartz's personal experiences navigating her career as a woman.

Schwartz, who came to Northwestern in Evanston in 1974 as chair of the biology department, recently talked with Andrea Albers about her life and new book.

AA: What is endocrinology?

NS: It is the study of hormones. My lab succeeded in finding inhibin in the ovary- a hormone that impacts the reproductive cycle. For years people had suspected that it existed but we were the first to demonstrate it. That was exciting. But we've also looked at things like the effects and aspects of estrogen and progesterone on behavior and regulation of reproduction. I got my first National Institute of Health (NIH) grant in 1954 and received funding for numerous projects until 1999, which is almost a record.

AA: Discuss the formation of the Association of Women in Science.

NS: To my knowledge, my book is the first to tell this story. It started with a group of women attending a physiology meeting in the early 1970s. About 27 of us met at a wine open house and we discussed how most of us in the room didn't have tenured positions or "own" a lab. So that night we formed the Association of Women in Science. Off the bat, we wanted to do something outrageous so we decided to sue the NIH because very few women sat on the boards that allocated research funding. There was a series of breast cancer advisory panels, for example, and out of 300 people, only two or three were women. That was unacceptable to us. So we took out an injunction against NIH to prevent them from appointing anyone to these boards until they started appointing more women. It worked and we dropped the suit. Today AWIS has over 5,000 members.

AA: Did you always know you were going to be a scientist?

NS: No, I thought I was going to be a journalist. In high school I wrote for the school newspaper and when I started at Goucher College in Baltimore, I intended to major in English. But I was required to take some science courses and I distinctly recall my first physiology class - it really threw me. I was fascinated that physiologists could explain things like how the heart and brain worked. So I presented myself to the department with no math, no chemistry and no physics under my belt. But I was very lucky to be in a place that encouraged people to branch and learn. I became a physiology major and it was a great fit for me.

AA: Why do you think it is important for women to work in the sciences?

NS: I think women have a different way of looking at the world that needs to be considered. In science especially, it is essential to have multiple viewpoints. I'm not saying women do different science - not at all. But I think there can be an important difference in the interpretation.

AA: Your book includes a lot of ‘behind the scenes' looks into lab work.

NS: I think people should know what science is really like. I wanted to give an accurate portrayal of what goes on in a lab - how you go about doing research, how you interpret it and how it leads to other experiments. I also have a chapter called Endocrinology 101, which explains the real issues in hormonal biology and not the hyped up stuff you get in the media.

AA: Among similar awards, you received an American Association for the Advancement of Science Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2002. Why is this important to you?

NS: In my career I have had very good personal mentors. True, they were men, but they couldn't have been better. And I've used that as a model because I've always felt like I have something to give students. Plus I've really enjoyed doing it. One of our department's former graduate students is now president of AWIS. I often hear news like that and I can't tell you how pleasing it is.