August 18, 2006

Book shares stories of women in science

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Book shares stories of women in science

Wonder Drake, M.D.

Wonder Drake, M.D.

Ann Richmond, Ph.D.

Ann Richmond, Ph.D.

If there's one thing that Wonder Drake, M.D., and Ann Richmond, Ph.D., have in common, it's this: they both wake up in the morning with smiles on their faces because a new day means another day at work.

Their stories are featured in “What's Past is Prologue,” a newly released collection of first-person accounts from 27 women in science at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Candid and personal, the book relates the experiences, struggles and joys of being a woman in academic research. Through the advice and support of female mentors who have found success and fulfillment, the book aims to encourage future generations of women to pursue careers in scientific investigation.

“For women in science, there are sometimes challenges that seem insurmountable when dealing with the stress of family, a career and the glass ceiling,” said Richmond, who has been at Vanderbilt for 17 years. “These were issues that I had to deal with over the years, and I thought it would be helpful to share my story.”

For many young women, scientific research is not a career they consider when going into science.

“I think a lot of women think of research as sitting at a bench in a white lab coat and pipetting all day,” said Drake, who has been at Vanderbilt for seven years.

But the classy, intelligent and passionate women scientists at VUMC know better. Acting as mentors, their stories serve as guides for the women who will come after them.

“The paths to succeed in academic medicine are not intuitive,” Drake said. “You can't know what to do on your own. You need direction.”

Providing just that, the women in “What's Past is Prologue” describe the challenges, rewards, setbacks and experiences that come with being women in what has in the past been considered a male field.

“We as women try to succeed in academic medicine in the same manner as those who have less home responsibilities,” Drake said. “If our child is sick, it often falls on us. It is important to use creativity and patience at work and home, in order to succeed in both.”

Offering advice ranging from the balance of work and family to the importance of mentors, the women in the book hope to help those women who will make the scientific and medical discoveries of the future.

They also seek to inspire the next generation of female researchers with their stories of success and discovery.

“More and more women — as well as men — need to see that scientific research is interesting and exciting,” Richmond said, a big smile spreading across her face. “They need to go on that adventure in science that their own creativity directs. I want more women and men to feel that thrill.”

For the women in “What's Past is Prologue,” the thrill comes from getting a paper accepted, having a grant funded, realizing they're on the right track after a series of experiments or making a life-changing discovery.

As the next generation of female researchers prepares to do the same thing, the women in science at Vanderbilt continue to come in every morning, excited to find answers to the questions from the day before.

Edited by Eric Neilson, M.D., chair of the Department of Medicine, “What's Past is Prologue: The Personal Stories of Women in Science at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine” is available for purchase at

Drake is assistant professor of Medicine. Richmond is professor of Cancer Biology and Medicine and senior career research scientist with the Veterans Administration.