Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Needless to say, the announcement of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine created quite the buzz in the science blogosphere, perhaps a bit more than usual because, for the first time, it was awarded to two women (and some white guy). This is fantastic...

...but it made me wonder about how often Nobel Prizes in sciences have been awarded to women.

The answer: 14 women in 106 years. Of those, 10 (including yesterday's announcement) have been in Physiology or Medicine.

It's interesting that the contributions of women in physics and chemistry were recognized much earlier than physiology. Marie Curie was awarded Nobel Prizes in Physics AND Chemistry in 1903 and 1911, respectively. Yet no woman has been awarded a Nobel Prize in either of these disciplines since the 1960s.

The selection of Nobel laureates is a bit of mystery to me. I don't think that this is some conspiracy by the Royal Swedish Academy to keep women down. I do think, however, that it is a reflection of general trends in sciences, namely that women have integrated into medicine and life sciences more rapidly than physical sciences. This is based entirely upon my own personal experience, and I haven't taken the time to research the statistics for this post. There were quite a few women (tenured/tenure-track/research) in departments under the purvey of the medical school at PSU, and in my current department at BRI, I know of at least 4 female faculty without looking at directory. In the chem department at PSU, there was a single female tenure-track professor when I started grad school--they did add another to the ranks during my time there. A senior research associate professor in my graduate lab relayed the experience of being told by a very famous organic chemist that women were physically too weak to do chemistry. WTF?

Is there some part of the process in physical sciences that selects for high levels of testosterone? It seems to be an issue of retention of women in the upper echelons. There were (and still are) three female faculty in the chem/biochem department where I did my undergrad (although that department did not have a PhD program). When I started grad school (in chemistry), our class was nearly half female. So what happens to them? My education and research has always tended toward biochemical/biological, so if I ever get my dream job, it will most likely be in med school or life sciences department. But, even though there are more women in medical/life sciences, the numbers don't add up for 'migration' of women from physical sciences.

I hope, by the time I reach the end of my career, that we won't be having these same discussions, that we won't be surprised when a woman--or two--take home a Nobel Prize in science.