Chemistry

Persistence, Hard Work, and Failure: The Makings of a Scientist

An interview with two trailblazers paving the way for women in STEM.

Breaking through barriers in research is not always about scientific discovery. Geraldine Richmond and Jo Handelsman are two trailblazing women in science, paving the way for future women in STEM.

Richmond is renowned for discovering key molecular characteristics of water surfaces, earning her the 2013 National Medal of Science in Chemistry. Richmond is currently University of Oregon’s presidential chair in science and a chemistry professor. Handelsman researches antibiotic resistance and other public health implications of microbial communities. Handelsman is also the director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. 

Richmond and Handelsman will discuss their groundbreaking research and the challenges they faced along the way May 10, as part of the National Science & Technology Medals Foundation ongoing “An Evening With” series, at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.

“Jo and I resonate on a lot of different issues so it will be fun,” Richmond said.

Both women were influenced by other women. Their mothers each played a key role in their development as researchers.

Richmond was inspired by her mother’s use of chemistry. Her mother worked a beautician and handled various chemicals in her salon.

“She was the first person to introduce me to chemistry, pointing out elements in the hair-product labels that were on the periodic table,” Richmond said recently of her mother while receiving the 2018 Priestley Medal, the highest honor awarded by the American Chemical Society. Richmond also noted her grandmother was also a role model for her own “independence and self-sufficiency.”

Handelsman’s mother is a source of inspiration for her work as well. Her mother died of antibiotic-resistant bacteria — an area Handelsman’s lab researches. No treatment worked. The bacteria that infected her mother had acquired resistance to all of the major antibiotics used to treat that species.

“In life’s ironies, I had studied antibiotics for many years before my mother got sick and we had even discovered some antibiotics, so this was already an interest of mine,” Handelsman said. “It was an incredibly frustrating thing to be a microbiologist and see her get sick and not be able to do anything when my own work deals with exactly this problem.” 

“I always felt like if we had discovered new antibiotics before my mother got sick maybe we would have had one that could have treated her,” she added. “It’s an intellectual passion, but it is also a very personal one for me. It just doubly fueled what I was already interested in.”

Today, Richmond works to inspire and encourage the next generation of women pursuing careers in science.

“In my early years, growing up on a farm in Kansas, I wasn’t even aware of a career in science, let alone that I could aspire to it,” Richmond said during her Priestley Medal speech.

In 1997, Richmond helped to form COACh, an international organization addressing the barriers to women in science. More than 20,000 women have participated in the organization’s professional development workshops.

“We launched a series of career-development workshops on negotiation, leadership, and communication techniques to empower women in academia, industry, and beyond to be more strategic in their chemistry careers,” Richmond told the American Chemical Society.

Handelsman said Richmond's work with COACh has a “globally high impact,” especially in helping chemistry departments understand what they may be doing unwittingly to put women at a disadvantage.

Barriers to women are not always explicit if noticeable at all.

“She has not only persisted herself; she has encouraged a lot of women around her to persist,” Handelsman said. “She is really an icon, not only in being a great scientist herself but also helping other women succeed and helping men understand what it takes for women to be successful, and how they may be inadvertently disadvantaging [women].” 

Handelsman noted the barriers to women are not always explicit if noticeable at all.

“We know from unfortunate statistics professors are less likely to respond to emails from women students than from men — that also goes for people of certain ethnicities,” Handelsman said. “Faculty are less likely to respond if it is something other than a white male name.”

“That’s disturbing and it is frustrating — but it just means women have to be persistent,” she added. “Often people, particularly women, when they are rejected or something doesn’t work out they assume it is because of their own deficiencies ... Women often take the blame for something not working out.”

A successful career in science takes persistence, hard work, and failure.

Handelsman notes a successful career in science takes persistence, hard work — and failure. 

“Failure is just part of science. You have to make the assumption that it is not you until proven otherwise,” she said. “Every woman has to persist until somebody truly convinces her with data that she is not competent because chances are, she is competent.”

“Science doesn’t take necessarily brilliant minds and genius outlooks — it takes a lot of hard work,” Handelsman added. “Unfortunately, people don’t tell young people that.”

Richmond highlights diversity as an essential safeguard for inclusive and quality science.

“Welcome diversity in everything that you do, whether it be diversity in who you work with or diversity in thought, whether it be intellectual diversity or social diversity,” Richmond said. “We know both of those create the best science.”

Richmond said in science, researchers must pursue their passion — no matter the obstacles, but with calculated risk. In pursuing her passion, Richmond ultimately turned accepted science on its head when it comes to understanding the surface of water.

“We are studying droplets, oil-water droplets and also studying atmospherically important molecules,” Richmond said. “What [our research] showed is that the view that oil and water don’t like each other [is wrong] — [they] actually do like each other.”

“Be willing to take risks. Risks are important. You need to build up your confidence, and that is one way to build up your confidence,” Richmond added. “Research is really exploratory, satisfying your curiosity. It allows you to experiment and try new ideas as you explore the unknown.”