Vantage Point: When I Grow Up

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In September 23, 2013, one of the great scientists of the 20th century passed away at the age of 105. What made this limnologist remarkable was not necessarily putting off retirement until age 100 (although that was pretty remarkable), but more that Dr. Ruth Patrick was a pioneer for women in science. Although she started publishing in 1933 on her entry to Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, she had to work without pay until 1945, even though she had been serving as assistant curator of microscopy since 1937 and had completed a Ph.D. in botany in 1934.

She had much to offer the world, and her work with diatoms (a group of mostly single-cell algae) set the stage for understanding relationships between living creatures and the quality of the freshwater rivers, lakes, and streams in which they live. Her work was an early example of multi-disciplinary collaboration to find answers about the health of our environment. At Penn I listened to her talk about her work, in a small forum offering lots of opportunities to pepper Dr. Patrick with questions. I remember thinking, "When I grow up, I want to be like her!" No, that didn’t mean I wanted to be really old (as she seemed to me back then), or a groundbreaker in science as the environmental activist she surely was. Instead, I especially admired two other things.

One was the way she could draw from different bodies of knowledge to phrase questions and find answers. That kind of imagination, inquiring beyond the boundaries of her original field of study, meant that big answers could be found in sometimes unexpected places. Rather than being stuck in a box defined by a single approach from her own discipline, Dr. Patrick wasn’t afraid to ask questions and eagerly learned from colleagues in different fields. A brave and open mind is a wonderful thing, something that takes us on exciting journeys of exploration. And she was gifted with the ability to transmit through her words and actions that sense of wonder and excitement, even urgency when it came to discussing risks to water quality and related risks to flora and fauna (including the mega-fauna homo sapiens).

For those of us to whom expanding beyond our comfort zones is difficult, it can take some effort to admit we have questions. As Nobel Prize-winning chemist and physicist Madame Marie Curie once said, "Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood." Sometimes we are so confused that we have difficulty even framing a question. Getting past this self-consciousness may require swallowing pride and letting ourselves be spurred by the urgency and excitement of finally "getting it"–even coming up with new solutions and new applications. Dr. Curie again: "A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician: he is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales." We surveyors are certainly more than technicians as well: with our arsenals of technological and legal knowledge we are able to defeat difficult conditions to complete the tasks set before us by clients who expect us to figure them out. And we certainly should feel accomplishment when we do so. Getting there is the part requiring inquisitiveness and fortitude and determination. I admire such traits.

The second thing I admired about Dr. Patrick was that she succeeded–excelled and became renowned–in a career dominated by men. Most of the men reading this article will have little appreciation for this point, but if we want to expand the number of licensed professional surveyors in this country we need to assure that everyone who tries it feels welcome regardless of gender, race, or creed. Because I went through my own personal times of hell running the gauntlet to learn as much as I could and to physically do as much as I could in surveying, I constantly hope that most of the problems I faced are long gone by now. But I still hear from women who assure me that they are not. Bullying, belittling, harassment, and pay inequities are all still prevalent in many professions, including ours.

Supporting this statement is a feature article in the October 6, 2013 New York Times Magazine (see the link below) about women in science and why there are so few of them. The reasons sounded all too familiar to me, being close parallels to my own experiences in the design professions. The Times article further reports on a study at Yale in which identical summaries of accomplishments for two imaginary applicants, one male and one female, were presented to professors in physics, biology, and chemistry at six major research institutions. The result was significantly more willingness to offer the man the job, or if the woman were to be hired, her annual salary was on average set nearly $4000 less than the man’s–even if the reviewer was a female scientist.

Something in the Times article really hurt: a discussion about lack of encouragement for women despite their stellar academic achievements. I was lucky to eventually find two wonderful mentors, colleagues who encouraged and coached me both in the field and in the office to reach my goal of licensure. They were the only ones–no other co-workers or friends or family members were there with an "Atta girl!" anywhere along the line. Dr. Patrick’s mother had traditional 1920’s ideas for her daughter, being "social graces" and marriage (in some families that has not changed nearly 100 years later). But her father bought her a microscope at age 7 and told young Ruth: "Don’t cook. Don’t sew. You can hire people to do that. Read and improve your mind." That’s sound advice for all of us.

When I grow up, I want to live in a world where the walls between traditionally separated bodies of knowledge are less rigid, and questions are welcomed rather than feared or scorned. I look forward to living in a place where everyone is encouraged to be inquisitive and cheered on to reach full potential. And I especially want to live in a world where people succeed because of their creativity and abilities, not because of having different chromosomes or any other different features.

Reference: "Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?" posted at

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.

A 1.537Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE