Sunday, June 5, 2011

Madame Who?

A colleague described something surprising (to him) the other day.  He had attended a Ph.D. student's general exam recently at which the student was asked to name a female Nobel laureate (in science).  She could not name a single female recipient....not even Marie Curie, who received two Nobel prizes for her work in physics.  Another member of her committee (not my colleague) had asked this question. When the student was unable to come up with a name, the professor mentioned Madame Curie. The student had never heard of her.

My colleague expressed shock that this student, a female, was unaware of who Marie Curie was and seemed to know of no other female laureates.  Apparently, my colleague and other male committee members could name several: Barbara McClintock, Carol Greider, Ada Yonath were some of the names mentioned.  I've asked similar questions at student exams, e.g., to name five famous female scientists and what their contributions were.  Previous posts on this topic are here and here.  In most instances, the student can name at least one or two women, usually Marie Curie. Curie's story is so well-known, it's hard to imagine anyone going through school and not ever hearing about her.

My colleague was perplexed and apparently thought I (being a woman) could shed some light on this student's failure to answer the question.  I was stumped at first, partly because I did not know the student.  I said that it did seem unusual that a female student of science would not know who Marie Curie was.  I asked my colleague why he thought this student had failed to hear about Curie during her schooling or any other female laureate (not to mention making an effort to learn about them on her own).

He did not have a good answer, but speculated that knowing about famous females scientists was not important to this student.  Perhaps. 

Another possible explanation (or contributing factor) in this case is that the student's field is one that is not recognized by the Nobel prize.  Not being in medicine, physics or chemistry, she might not pay much attention to awardees or to their contributions.  That's just a guess. I would bet that a male student (in this same field) would have difficulty naming more than one or two male Nobel laureates.  They would probably guess Watson and Crick or Einstein, but not likely know less famous recipients.  How many of us know the names of recent recipients of the Nobel (outside our fields) and the details of their discoveries?

What I wonder is whether this professor asks this question of all students. Does he ask them to name any Nobel laureate, ask male students to name female laureates, or does he ask only females to name a female laureate?  My colleague did not know since he had never served on a committee with this other professor before.  Is it fair to ask the question of female students and not male students? Is it unfair to ask a female student to name only female Nobel winners, since there have been so few of them?  I think this professor thought he was asking an easy (and fair) question. He probably assumed that she would at least know of Marie Curie.

The motive behind such questions is to gauge how broad the student's knowledge is. Students should be familiar with major discoveries in their field as well as in other fields of science and who made them.  I would expect a student of science to have some knowledge of well-known scientists--at least be able to name a few Nobel laureates (male or female) and why they received the honor.


Anonymous said...

I agree that it's very surprising that a student (in any field of science) wouldn't at least have heard of Marie Curie but I think that there is something a little troubling about asking a female student to name a female Nobel laureate. Although I'm very interested in the history of women in my field and in other areas of science, I know many women who aren't. In some cases it's because history overall is not a strong interest and in other cases because they're just sick of being a "female scientist" rather than just a "scientist". Women shouldn't be asked to have a larger burden than men in knowing "our" history (although I would argue it helps for many women to know that history) but this question makes the assumption we should. Also having read a little about the effects of being reminded that you are an abnormality in your field (racially or by gender) it seems raising this issue in this way - "you're a woman remember?" - would be a good way to throw someone during such a stressful process.

EllenQ said...

I agree strongly with the previous commenter. I am in fields (anthropology and genetics) that aren't frequently recognized with Nobels. I certainly know who Marie Curie is, but I am much more familiar with the current and recent leaders of my field (male and female) than Nobel prize winners.

Also, I thought I would pass along this comic which makes a nice point about focusing on a few female scientists as role models: