Saturday, June 4, 2011

Rest in Peace, Dr. Rosalyn Yalow, Nobel Laureate

As I was growing up in Yonkers, New York, I read The New York Times at every opportunity.

While I was a student at Yonkers High School and in college at Brown University, I would periodically come across articles on the amazing scientist, Dr. Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, who had been born in NYC. She passed away on May 30, 2011, in NYC at age 89.

Her parents never finished high school, but she went on to graduate magna cum laude from Hunter College and then struggled to get accepted for graduate school. When she applied to a midwestern university (I won't mention the name but you can find it here and times have changed somewhat since I was recruited by the same one a few years back for a tenured faculty position) to further her studies in physics, the university wrote back to her professor: She is from New York. She is Jewish. She is a woman. If you can guarantee her a job afterward, we’ll give her an assistantship. This could not be guaranteed, so she was rejected.

Despite being hurt by this rejection, she got a job as a secretary at Columbia University and with World War II opening up academic opportunities for women, she received a teaching assistantship at the University of Illinois in Urbana in engineering. She was the only female teaching fellow/faculty member out of 400! She received her doctorate in nuclear physics in 1945, moved back to NYC, where her incredible scientific career with discoveries in radioimmunoassay, with her collaborator Dr. Berson, continued.

Many new, creative ideas are met with resistance. According to The Times, scientific journals, at first, rejected her research with Berson on insulin antibodies. She did not forget this experience and included the rejection letter in her Nobel prize lecture. She received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1977, only the second woman at that point to have been awarded this major accolade. Speaking to schoolchildren several years after receiving the Nobel about the challenges of a life as a scientist, she said, Initially, new ideas are rejected. Later they become dogma, if you're right. And if you're really lucky, you can publish your rejections as part of your Nobel presentation.

Although Berson predeceased her, and, hence, could not share the prize with her, she named her lab after him, so that his name would appear on her publications afterwards. Yalow was not only a great scientist but also a great person.

This week, the 2011 World Science Festival (WSF) is taking place in NYC, and I hope to catch a part of it, since it is an amazing set of 50 events over 5 days. One of the themes this year, and Yalow would have been pleased, is Women in Science.

Some highlights of my experiences at the 2009 WSF can be found here.