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July 31, 2020

A Lab of One's Own: One Woman's Personal Journey Through Sexism in Science by Rita Colwell and Sharon Bertsch McGrayne ~ a Review

by Donna Huber

Women have been overlooked and harassed for many years in many industries. Even the systematic discrimination they have experienced has often been swept under the rug and denied. History of Marie Curie's contributions to our understanding of radioactivity has been rewritten to acknowledge her work, but how much of her struggles to be recognized have been glossed over? The #MeToo movement has brought gender inequality front and center to our social awareness. However, long before the movement was named, women and their male allies have steadily chipped away at the male dominance in the ivory tower of scientific study. 
Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

A Lab of One's Own
August 2020; Simon & Schuster; 978-1501181276
As a woman in science, I was interested in the historical aspect of A Lab of One's Own as well as a wider perspective of where women in science stand today. I got that and more - a closer look at cholera and anthrax research as well as the evolution of the life sciences disciplines. 

Dr. Rita Colwell is uniquely situated to detail the history of women in the sciences. She not only lived through key moments but she was a leading player in the changes that have led to more women working in the sciences. The insider knowledge she brings to the table added depth to her story - making it the perfect blend of history and memoir.

I love science history and the first third of the book was a broad look at the history of women in history - how they often worked as unpaid volunteers or in their husband laboratories, instances of intellectual theft, etc. This section is peppered with information from first-hand accounts so it isn't just a boring account. I felt like I knew these women and was appalled at their treatment. Then the book moves more into Colwell's personal journey, segues to research projects she has been involved in (cholera and anthrax after 9/11) and her leadership roles at the NSF and business world, and finishes with where we are now and what still is needed to bring true equity to the sciences so that our big world problems can be solved by the smartest people from 100% of our population.

I was impressed by all that Colwell and her female colleagues went through and accomplished so that I never had to experience overt sexual discrimination and harassment. I think I was most shocked by how recently some of the obstacles were overcome. I had assumed most of the work of breaking down barriers was done in the 1960s and 70s, so it was eye-opening when she mentioned things occurring in the late 1990s - the time when I was in college and was considering a career as a wildlife biologist. Some of the statistics she provided for universities where she had worked had me wanting to look up those numbers for my own university. 

While I've never worried about a male scientist grabbing my breast instead of shaking my hand (I'm still flabbergasted at that story in the book), I do wonder if I was subject to subtle forms of sexual discrimination or gender bias during my college career. This book did help me understand more the defensiveness I heard a few weeks into my freshman year when a fellow student called our history professor Ms. instead of Dr. The professor commented that the student must not think a woman could have a doctorate. I thought her comment was harsh given that few of us had encountered a teacher, male or female, that went by doctor prior to entering college.

A Lab of One's Own isn't about white men being evil, Cowell names several white male colleagues who were allies and sometimes instrumental in elevating the role of females in the science. It also isn't just about women in history. In the chapters about her cholera research, time as director of the NSF, and work with the anthrax and gulf coast projects, Colwell details changes in technology and techniques that revolutionized scientific research (often women were instrumental in bringing about these new ways). She was at the forefront of bioinformatics and interdisciplinary research.

If you love science history, have an interest in a more equitable society, or looking for advice on how to navigate your own career journey, then I highly recommend picking up this book as you will find all of that wrapped in an enjoyable read.

Buy A Lab of One's Own at Amazon

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.

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  1. You sold me on this one. It sounds interesting and I'm curious to read about her personal journey in science. This is the first time I'm hearing about it coming out. thanks for sharing.