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WOMEN IN SCIENCE
Princeton’s laboratories aren’t devoid of politics, But
results speak more clearly than gender
This article by Phyllis M. Maguire was published in U.S. 1
Newspaper on January 21, 1998. All rights reserved
In Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, the central character,
a Canadian artist named Elaine, spends her early childhood camping
with her father, her mother, and older brother, Stephen. With Stephen
as her one companion, she learns to excel at games with outcomes that
are verifiable: who can run faster or throw a ball farther. Moving
to Toronto and making friends with girls for the first time, she is
at a loss how to "win" at girls’ games. Finally she cracks
their code: "All I have to do is sit on the floor and cut frying
pans out of the Eaton’s Catalogue with embroidery scissors, and say
I’ve done it badly."
The women profiled in this year’s "Women In Business" issue
spent little time pretending to do anything badly. But as scientists,
their careers have been propelled by producing quantifiable results.
"That is not to say the laboratory is free from politics,"
warns Karen Linder at Bracco Research USA. "But scientific
are driven by objectives. The teams that reach goals are certainly
judged better than the ones that don’t." Each of these women —
Linder, Helena Axelrod of Transcell Technologies, Margaret Bisher
of NEC Research Institute, and Maya Gokhale of Sarnoff Corporation
— straddle several fields of science and technology, running
races as swiftly as any of their colleagues and swelling the numbers
of women in Princeton’s rich scientific community.
Top Of PageKaren Linder
There are odd moments when she toys with the notion
of moving into another area of business, like marketing. But
Karen Linder, research fellow and project team leader at Bracco’s
305 College Road laboratory, can’t get past the fact that research
is not only more fun, but potentially more powerful. "Research
is really a company’s pipeline," she says, after more than 20
years developing compounds used in nuclear medicine and magnetic
imaging. "In research, you influence business in a very direct
way." You also ride an accelerated roller coaster of technology
"I don’t think I’ve had two weeks in my professional life that
were the same," says the New England native, "so flexibility
is an absolute must. Every new potential product or compound has its
own area of chemistry, biology, and medicine to be mastered, and new
techniques to be learned." While she now sees more resumes from
women for research, Linder claims the corporate research environment
"There is much more of a matrix feel to it," she says.
are moving toward capping the number of permanent employees. They
contract work out or hire temporary staff, or they have employees
figure things out for themselves. The days when teams of experts were
hired are definitely over. Now you must become the expert
Linder’s own career has been one of sustained satisfaction. "There
is a very strong respect for skill and proficiency at Bracco,"
she says of her current employer. The company has "a flat
without much room to grow as far as formal hierarchy," and the
only level beyond her immediate boss’s is filled by Bracco’s
Michael Tweedle. "I’d like to have my boss’s job and he knows
it," Linder laughs, "but I’m very comfortable in the position
I’m in. I have all the responsibility I want and then some."
She credits an element of serendipity in her career, though passion
and excellence have clearly played a part. She grew up in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, with a keen interest in nature — and medicine,
"because there are many nurses in my family. But I didn’t want
to be a nurse. I prefer dealing with things rather than people."
One of those nurses was her mother, "a pretty powerful role model.
Working was definitely expected for the women in my family."
also thrived in the lush hothouse of education Cambridge had to offer,
attending the Peabody School where "we got to be guinea pigs for
all sorts of pilot science lab programs, neat stuff most students
wouldn’t see." Linder later received an excellent science
at Weston High School, and now credits her biology teacher, Susan
Meiry, as a mentor who offered "enthusiasm, encouragement, and
a nice approach to science."
Graduating from Northeastern University in 1976 with a bachelor’s
in biology, Linder expected to go into teaching herself. Instead she
went to work for New England Nuclear, developing radioactive compounds
that localize in a particular tissue or organ for diagnostic purposes,
working fulltime while earning a master’s from Northeastern in
chemistry in 1982.
It was at New England Nuclear that she first worked with the
metal technetium, the element used in most nuclear medicine agents.
That was when Linder found her calling in inorganic chemistry. "I
was doing organic chemistry at the time, very badly," she recalls.
"A project came in that nobody else was available to do and I
said I’d like to try. From then on, until I left the company, I could
do no wrong. I was working by the seat of my pants, making valuable
contributions, and the compounds were so pretty! The first time I
saw crystals of a technetium complex under the microscope, I was sold.
They were beautiful reddish orange rubies that were just lovely to
She took a leave of absence to pursue a Ph.D. at MIT. "I had had
no formal training in what I was doing, not even a course, so I knew
there was a lot to learn. Plus the company had been acquired by
and it was clear you wouldn’t get anyplace in DuPont without a
By the time Linder received her doctorate in 1986, DuPont had declared
a hiring freeze, and there were only a handful of places in the world
where she could pursue technetium chemistry. One was at E. R. Squibb
in Princeton, bringing her "kicking and screaming" to New
In the 11 years since she arrived, E. R. Squibb became the
Squibb Pharmaceutical Research Institute before the diagnostic
was spun off as Bracco Research USA Inc. Along the way, Linder had
been promoted from an entry-level research investigator to research
fellow. She is currently a project team leader in an interdisciplinary
research group charged with the discovery of new targeted imaging
agents for use in nuclear medicine and magnetic resonance imaging
And MRI research is a relatively new area for her. The
technique was first attempted in the 1970s, and Linder saw her first
MRI image at a nuclear medicine conference in 1980. "It was a
magnetic resonance image of an orange, with all the seeds and
she says. "Within a very short time, MRI progressed from a
tool to a clinical technique that is very widely used, and the two
fields — MRI and nuclear medicine — are complementary.
resonance imaging gives very pretty anatomical images with sharp
Nuclear medicine has lousy resolution, but it gives beautiful
about biochemistry." Both procedures are essential diagnostic
tools, particularly in cardiology, neurology, oncology, and
Linder’s workday typically lasts from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., with
stints of travel every year. Half her work is administrative, while
the rest is devoted to research "or interacting with the team
in some way. The research projects I take on now are significantly
less complicated than the ones I had earlier. As a manager, I don’t
have the time to focus the effort you need to solve the hard problems,
and I feel that as a loss. But I recognize it’s part of management
and I let it go. My favorite thing still is to pick apart chemical
reactions and figure out what makes them tick. The small,
work is what I like best — but I do the big picture very well
too, because that’s what they want me to do." She is an avid
and founded the Kingston Garden Club this past fall. Like the other
women profiled, Linder has been offered jobs around the country —
including positions in New England, but the once reluctant transferee
now won’t move. "My work environment and the stimulation of our
research are big reasons to stay. And the fact that I’ve got 1,500
bulbs, a bunch of trees, and a gorgeous garden has me rooted."
Never married, Linder has no regrets about not having children.
was never something I ever considered except in passing. My compounds
were my babies, and I think it would have been very hard, at least
at certain periods in my life, to make a heavy-duty career commitment
and care for a family." She is particularly proud of "unique
molecules, compounds that I’ve worked on, that have gone to clinical
trials or been turned into drugs," and her strategy for success
extends well beyond the realm of science.
"Always be open for growth and more opportunity. People above
you are always overworked and looking for someone to off-load on.
If you are there to do it, you end up with their undying gratitude.
Accept all the responsibility you can take."
Linder does see some differences in the leadership styles of men and
women. "I have had very few women role models to compare myself
to," she continues, "but most men seem to spend less time
seeking consensus or drawing people out than I know I do. My skills
as a facilitator and communicator feel like pretty feminine parts
of myself, and they have certainly been appreciated rather than
at. The process of gaining consensus stimulates creativity, and that’s
one of the things that makes a team run."
Top Of PageHelena Axelrod
Helena Axelrod knows when to seek consensus — and
when not. "I’ve seen so much individual variation that I have
a hard time saying there is any gender approach to how people deal
with people. Consensus-building is necessary, but sometimes the
issue is setting the right direction. Vision is important in this
business." As director of biological research for Transcell
a 35 member research firm at 8 Cedarbrook Drive at Exit 8A, Axelrod’s
vision is essential to her position and career.
Transcell was founded in 1991 by Princeton University researchers
Daniel Kahne and Suzanne Walker, who persuaded a private investor
to make their lab technology a commercial entity. "Carbohydrate
chemistry is the core of our technology," Axelrod explains.
company was founded around our ability to make new sugars and to link
them together rapidly in many combinations to build new families of
drugs." Transcell produces thousands of these new molecules at
a time, taking a number of building blocks and combining them in
ways simultaneously. "We then identity those molecules that act
to kill bacteria by a process called high throughput screening,’"
says Axelrod. "Using robots, we can quickly pick out the most
Another area of research is in enhanced drug delivery. A
molecule the company developed can be combined with drug compounds
and applied to medications now available only by injection in a
setting, making them more widely available and inexpensive as pills
or nose sprays. "One of the drugs we worked on is the antibiotic
gentamycin," Axelrod says. "It has a broad spectrum of
against many different kinds of bacteria. As a pill, it would be more
consumer-friendly and used against more diseases." Another
Axelrod cites is calcitonin, a peptide hormone — peptides being
a short portion of proteins. "Calcitonin is an agent for
bone mass. Peptides are organic substances and are normally not taken
orally since they get broken down too easily and not absorbed. By
combining them with the drug delivery molecules we’ve developed, we
promote their absorption, so enough calcitonin can get in the blood
to the bone to help it grow."
The unique chemistry Transcell developed has led to the synthesis
of a number of compounds for drug and DNA delivery — to be
by other companies. "We cannot take the technology to the next
phase, which is animal and human work," Axelrod says. "We’re
a research organization, not a development company. We get particular
products to a certain stage and then find partners to develop them
commercially." Helping find those business partners is going to
be Axelrod’s next career challenge, after 14 years of academic
and 11 years of pharmaceutical research and development.
She grew up in Brooklyn where her mother was an accountant and her
father was a manager in a grocery store. Axelrod "very
remembers being bitten by the science bug. "It happened in 10th
grade," she recalls. "I had a biology teacher who was the
first person who made science at all appealing. Before that I hated
science, and my great passion was to become an artist. But this
asked questions instead of presenting facts, and that was really
It was the first time I realized there were some very important,
She graduated from Brooklyn College in 1972 with a dual major in
and chemistry and entered the Ph.D. program at Princeton University’s
biology department, doing her doctorate on cancer-causing animal
Her first postdoctoral position was at New York’s Memorial
Cancer Institute. She went to the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia
for research in embryology and immunology, and accepted a position
at Interferon Sciences in New Brunswick. The move brought Axelrod
back to the Princeton area and signaled a shift from basic to applied
"I wasn’t feeling satisfied in the academic sphere," she says.
"One reason was my frustration getting grant money. The amount
of time you had to devote to writing grants instead of doing
work was enormous. I also wanted work that would lead more directly
to medical benefits. What I was doing would eventually get applied,
but I wanted something more immediate."
Her work at Interferon was research-based, "but as time went on,
we spent more effort supporting the FDA application of interferon
as a drug, characterizing its activity and understanding how it
More cancer research followed at Cytogen Corporation where Axelrod
was promoted internally, "from a bench scientist performing my
own lab work to overseeing other people’s work. I always felt my
were in management and I did want to move up." She moved to
in 1993, and while Axelrod is in charge of the Biological Research
Department and project teams, "I’ve become very interested in
the business side of the company. There aren’t that many therapeutic
areas we can tackle on our own, but we can certainly apply our
and unique compounds to different areas. My mission will be to
them and play matchmaker."
It has been a career — like the others here profiled — with
no part-time component or mommy track. Axelrod shares the logistical
challenges of raising a 12-year-old son with her husband, David, an
associate professor of microbiology and genetics at Rutgers
and the fact that they are both scientists brings mutual
"We can appreciate each other’s accomplishments and some of the
frustrations," she says. "It’s easier to support each other
because we know what our jobs entail." Axelrod finds the Princeton
area particularly attractive to two career science couples. "It’s
easier to attract couples because the prospect of both of them getting
jobs with a reasonable commute is fairly high. That is a serious
Her most important research contribution was the development of
to establish mouse embryonic cell lines that have aided in the study
of genetic diseases. "In terms of my career in the pharmaceutical
industry, I played a part in getting FDA approval for interferon and
putting two cancer products into clinical trials." At Transcell,
Axelrod is particularly proud of her role in investigating their drug
delivery agents and in discovering new antibiotics. And while her
own career has led from pure to applied research, she applauds the
recently proposed hikes in federal funding for medical research.
"People don’t realize that investing in research —
research institutes, medical schools — has very wide repercussions
for all aspects of drug development and medical care," she says.
"The medical community is very interrelated. When there are
in funding — and there have been over the last 10 years, with
research funds getting squeezed out of health care — it means
future advances are going to be few and far between."
Top Of PageMargaret Bisher
In almost 20 years spent with the National Institutes
of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and with NEC Research Institute Inc.
at 4 Independence Way in Princeton, Margaret Bisher has never strayed
from basic research. "I’ve been very fortunate in the jobs I’ve
had. It’s unusual to be able to do basic research without the constant
pressure of `how many millions of dollars can you make?’
"Not that we can just be mad scientists," she laughs. "We
do have annual reports and we must justify our existence. But basic
research" — as opposed to applied, which is geared to
a specific product or procedure — "is discovery by accident.
Even though there are demands, this is more of a think-tank
where we’re allowed to be more creative and given more freedom."
The NEC Research Institute was established in 1989 as the American
research arm of NEC, the Japanese computer giant. Institute teams
in computer science study computer architecture and intelligence,
image processing and perceptual organization. In physical science,
researchers probe bio- and condensed matter physics, optics and
electronics. Bisher is part of the Physical Sciences Research group,
working in condensed matter physics.
"I’m doing materials science, studying the structure of
she says. "While there are people here who work on theory, I’m
an experimentalist. My job is to take any interesting material and
examine its structure at the atomic level." The tool she uses
is an 10-foot tall electron microscope. "There is a filament at
the top to which a high voltage is applied," Bisher explains.
"Electrons come off the filament and travel down the column,
through a thin sample placed in the path of the electrons. That
an image onto a screen. The microscope works much like a slide project
— except we use electrons instead of light and thinned samples
instead of slides." Since it transmits electrons through the
the instrument is known as a transmission electron microscope or TEM,
seeing into the molecular structure of cells and the atomic structure
"You sit at the bottom of the column, looking through
Bisher says of her TEM work. "The room is usually dark because
the microscope is taking pictures. It looks like Mission Control with
all sorts of lights and buttons and knobs. Some you move manually;
others are computer-controlled. We have four computers on the
and each does something a little different."
The samples Bisher studies are carbon nanotubes, tiny, molecular
rods. These rods are "stretched out" versions of the carbon-60
"buckyball" that looks like a soccer ball, but is 10 billion
times smaller. What is Bisher looking for by studying nanotubes?
really don’t know," she says, comfortable in the free zone of
fundamental research where the concept of failure is irrelevant.
could say nanotubes are the world’s thinnest wires. We know they are
carbon in their basic structure and formula, very strong and hard,
but we’re finding they have different properties when decorated with
different materials. We don’t really know how they might eventually
be applied, but the race is on to find out."
Bisher switched to physics after a dozen years of research in biology
— but she grew up being adaptable. Her father was an Air Force
pilot, and though he served six tours in Vietnam, he didn’t want his
family stationed overseas. They did live in Ohio and Texas, but mostly
hopped around California among various bases.
"By the time I went to college, I’d been in 13 different schools
— three in third grade alone," Bisher says. Her first work
with a microscope came in high school biology. By the time she was
in high school, her father had retired from the military and the
had moved to New Jersey where he became an American Airlines pilot
flying out of New York. Through early admissions, Bisher knew by her
senior year that she’d been accepted to Boston University, "and
the only two subjects required by the state of New Jersey were English
and P. E. My last year in high school, I signed up for classes like
psychology and sociology and drafting, neat things I never took
but in two weeks, I hated every one. I dropped them all and switched
over to advanced biology, Physics II, and calculus. Then I was
Bisher majored in microbiology at B. U. and recalls with relish a
lecture given by Isaac Asimov, "an odd character and very
man." But she proved to be an unconventional student. "I went
to school and got disillusioned. I thought, ‘Why am I spending all
this effort and where is it going to get me?’" She left school
after two and a half years, returning to New Jersey to work for CITGO
— "that’s when I learned a lot of my physical chemistry"
— while taking courses at Rutgers. When she finished her
in 1985 at the University of Maryland, she was attending school
while working full-time for the NIH under a cooperative learning
She stayed at NIH until 1991.
"I studied the structure of viruses, everything from herpes to
rabies to chicken pox and portions of the AIDS virus. My job was to
report on what each looked like and to define its structure."
Though her NIH supervisor encouraged her to get a Ph.D., Bisher
against it, and claims the decision hasn’t hampered her career. "I
have almost 20 years of experience, which will open more doors for
me than more school. And I don’t mind being an Indian; somebody else
can be the chief. I’m very well rewarded for my experience and I don’t
feel slighted in any way."
The NIH was a unique and fondly remembered scientific environment.
"We had 15,000 people on a 400-acre campus with our own phonebook
and zip code," she says. "I miss that closeness and size,
and that’s the reason I now travel a little bit more. I don’t get
the same kind of immediate feedback I did at NIH, and it’s important
to have." Bisher returned to New Jersey when her mother —
who lived in the area and had been a professional nanny — offered
to watch Bisher’s newborn son. Sending out 50 resumes during the 1991
recession, Bisher got one interview — with NEC.
Now in a group with one supervisor and a postdoctoral
member, she collaborates with several other NEC Research teams.
I’m a biologist working in materials, I offer a different
she says. "My boss used to tease me that a materials scientist
makes a sample with a hammer. A biologist prepares samples very
and I have tried to use some biological techniques in preparing my
samples at NEC. As a biologist in a computer science company, it is
sometimes difficult suggesting a point of view that others aren’t
familiar with, but that’s okay. It keeps me on my toes."
Incorporating biology into physics brought Bisher special recognition
in 1996. "I attended a microscopy meeting where I presented some
of my work in the form of a poster. All the posters were entered into
competition and mine won for `Best Biological Poster.’ I remember
overhearing grumbling from some biological science researchers about
`how could a computer science company win in biology?’"
Adaptability has stood her in good stead as a parent. Now divorced,
she lives with her son Philip next door to her mother on a 250-year
old farm set on four acres in Flemington. With her mother continuing
to care for Philip, who is now 7, after school, Bisher finds living
on a family compound and caring for the grounds on the weekends very
"I had my son at the Harmony School across the street from where
I work, and he’d ride in with me," she says. "We’d have that
hour commute together and an hour home. It made for a long day, but
he got used to it." Her son, Bisher says, "is sure I’m a
scientist," and is very proud of what she does.
Though the days when she — as the daughter of an airline pilot
— could hop on a plane to scuba-dive in Hawaii might be over,
the 42-year-old remains as adventurous as the working mother of a
grade-schooler can be. The fact that she is very outgoing often
the stereotypes of scientists she runs into. "We’re not all wonks
with pocket protectors," she says. "Sometimes I think people
are afraid of scientists because they don’t quite know what to think
of us. That’s partly because science is now so specialized, but it’s
hard when you explain what you do and you lose people after four
Or you say you’re a scientist and their one comment is how they hated
science in high school. It’s really difficult sometimes to explain
to people the world you’re in."
That she is a woman scientist makes no difference in how laypeople
react or how she is perceived by her colleagues. "In certain
fields, like the biological sciences, women don’t seem to be a
she says. "But physics and computer science are still dominated
by men — and I’ve let that work for me. I’ve been very aggressive
in proving myself to be as good as anyone else.
"The competition is there, but not because you’re a man or a
The scientific community is very fair, and as a group of people, we
treat each other as equals with a great deal of respect."
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