While growing up, Joan Bennett never thought about a career as a scientist. “I was going to be a teacher,” she says. “In those days teaching was one of the few careers open to women.”
But destiny and a series of female mentors helped her expand her horizons, and today the noted geneticist is also known for her efforts to promote the advancement of women in scientific fields. Bennett is a professor in the department of plant biology and pathology at Rutgers, where she is also associate vice president for academic affairs, charged with developing a campus-wide effort to support women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Bennett will speak about her experiences as a woman in the sciences and the often unconscious gender bias and stereotypes that persist in the scientific community when she presents “Don’t Take This Wrong, But You are Really Good for a Girl, and Other Stories about Being a Woman in Science” on Tuesday, October 27, at noon at Mercer County Community College. The lecture is free. Visit www.mccc.edu to register.
Bennett, a specialist in mold toxins, grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey, the daughter of Finnish immigrants. “For them college was a poorly understood but laudable objective,” she says. “They wanted me to become a teacher. I liked to please my parents, so that is what I wanted too. I spent my childhood planning to become a fifth grade teacher, work for a few years, marry Mr. Right, and then stay home to raise a family.”
Girl Scouts was her first introduction to the world of biology. “I got hooked on earning the nature badges,” she says, but admits she would have been mortified if her friends had known about her “geeky” interests. In high school an introduction to the wonders of life as seen in a microscope by a female biology teacher not only continued her interest in science but helped her to see it as a potential career for a woman.
Female mentors. Bennett attended Upsala College in East Orange. “It was the 1960s and most science departments at major research universities had all-male faculties. Professional women were often shunted into teaching jobs at colleges away from the centers of research,” she says. But she benefited by again seeing female professors teaching science courses.
“Years later, after my consciousness had been raised, my good fortune registered,” she says. “My scout leader, my high school biology teacher, and my most important undergraduate professors were all women. They were committed teachers with exacting standards and a passion for their work. They had tacitly demonstrated that marriage and family didn’t have to be divorced from work and science.”
The summer between her junior and senior years of college, Bennett worked in a National Science Foundation program for undergraduates, in the plant breeding department at Cornell, where a professor suggested that she consider graduate school. She received her undergraduate degree in biology and history in 1963 from Upsala, and then obtained her Ph.D. in botany from the University of Chicago in 1967.
Bennett remembers entering her first genetics class at the University of Chicago to find she was the only woman in the class — a fact that is often still prevalent today. “It’s still common for there to be only two or three girls in science and engineering classes. They often feel isolated and alone,” she says.
By the time Bennett received her Ph.D. she was married, and “did what many young brides do — I followed my husband to the place where he had found a good job. In our case, New Orleans.”
First woman in her department. She was hired by the Agricultural Research Service there to develop a genetic system to study a mold that made a carcinogenic toxin, aflatoxin. After two years there, along with two pregnancies, she was hired by the Tulane University biology department — the first woman to be given a tenure track position there. “I had two children in diapers and a fulltime job,” she says. “It was exhausting and exciting.”
Bennett stayed at Tulane until Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. She and her husband evacuated to New Jersey, where he had family, and in 2006 she was offered the position at Rutgers.
While she is proud of how far women have come in the years since she began her career, Bennett also sees how far there still is to go. “It was about 10 years after they hired me that the second woman in the department was hired, and when I left, there were still only three of us,” she says.
Life at Rutgers. Bennett heads the Rutgers Office for the Promotion of Women in Science. “We have incredibly ambitious goals,” she says. While many of the programs focus on Rutgers students and faculty, the office also has a number of outreach programs.
The department recently received a $3.76 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Money from the program will be used for a variety of programs, including improving communication on campus and increasing the number of women, particularly minority women, in science programs. “There are many excellent minority women out there in science studies, but they are just not making it into the system,” she says.
Her department’s website, http://sciencewomen.rutgers.edu/, includes a page with stories by women faculty on how they became interested in science as a career.
Problems of caregiving. One of the biggest problems for younger women in the sciences, whether in academe or industry, is still childcare, according to Bennett. “People in the system often don’t seem to understand how much of a problem this is for women,” she says, pointing out that Rutgers still only has one childcare center. Its second, in Newark, will open in about a year.
Encouraging younger women. Interest in the sciences must begin at an early age, Bennett says. It is important for parents and teachers to encourage children’s interest in a variety of science-related topics.
Luckily, she says, there are many excellent programs available for children of all ages and at all price points, from summer camps, including Rutgers’ own science camp for girls held each summer, to the Girl Scouts.
Bennett also wants to encourage women to learn about the wide variety of science careers that are available. “In science, one size doesn’t fit all. There are careers in health fields, biology, math, in academe, and in industry,” she says. No matter what area of interest she has, there is a place for every women in the sciences.