Brain Pickings

A Lab of My Own: Coming Out In Science

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Bringing humanity to science, or what vintage matrimony has to do with modern myth-busting.

Dr. Neena Schwartz is one of the world’s most influential reproductive biologists, whose seminal work in endocrinology has changed the way science thinks about the relationship between the brain and the reproductive system. A Lab of My Own, her ambitious autobiography, is out this season and an absolute cultural landmark in a number of ways.

“I was the only woman getting my PhD in the department of physiology at Northwestern. At my first job at the University of Illinois, the chairman of the department asked me to pour the tea. ‘Sure,’ I said, ‘but maybe someone else can pour it next time.’ Nobody ever asked me again.” ~ Dr. Neena Schwartz

When Dr. Schwartz first set out to write the memoir a decade ago, she meant for it to document something difficult and controversial that no one ever had before — the feminist movement in science. But in the process of writing, she realized that in order to approach the issue with the level of authenticity that true credibility required, she’d have to also write about something even more difficult and even more controversial that had never been revealed before — the fact that she was gay.

“Sexuality itself was taboo. Look at the movies from [the 1940s] — even married couples were always seen in twin beds. But the wrong kind of sexuality was much, much worse.” ~ Dr. Neena Schwartz

Boing Boing has an excellent interview with Dr. Schwartz by Steve Silberman, peeling away at the many facets of prejudice that she faced over the years while persevering as a bold and brilliant scientists, as well as dispelling some of the scientific myths surrounding our current (mis)understanding of homosexuality and the legal implications of this as we face same-sex marriage debate.

A Lab of My Own became Dr. Schwartz’s dignified and profoundly inspirational coming out story, but also a rich and layered account of her career as a scientist, feminist and mentor, at once reminding us how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go. And for those of us who came of age in the liberal 90s, it awakens a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude to the women of Dr. Schwartz’s generation (like iconic designer Jane Thompson, whom I had the pleasure of seeing become the second female Lifetime Achievement honoree of the National Design Awards the other night) whose trials and tribulations paved the way for so much we take for granted today.

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