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New Ruth Kirschstein Biography Tells the Story of an Inspirational Woman of Science


A recent survey done by US President Barack Obama's administration shows that while women make up 48 percent of the overall workforce, they only hold 24 percent of all science, technology, engineering, and mathematics jobs. To address that gender gap, there are several National Institutes of Health programs and funding opportunities dedicated to encouraging women to enter STEM fields, and universities across the US have instituted programs to help female postdocs juggle work and family life without burning out.

But it was not always so. The early 20th century was not an encouraging environment for women who wanted to become researchers. It wasn't until mid-century that middle-class women began to regularly work outside the home, and then, they often faced hostile environments, unequal pay, and the condescension of their male peers — more so than they do today.

That was the environment that Ruth Lillian Kirschstein faced when she graduated from Tulane University with a medical degree in 1951. Despite the challenges, Kirschstein became one of the most respected female researchers of her time — she was the first woman to direct the National Institute of General Medical Sciences — and served as an inspiration to others who would follow in her footsteps.

A new biography, Always There, by science writer Alison Davis, tracks Kirschstein's life from her father's roots as a Russian immigrant to the US to her college years, her training as a classical pianist, her research, her leadership of other researchers, and her life at home with her family. "It never occurred to me that I could not do anything I wanted," Davis quotes Kirschstein as saying.

The book seems to back up that assertion. From when she was young, Kirschstein dedicated herself to her goals. When applying to medical school, she wrote to every such institution in the US — many of which rejected her because she was a woman — until she found a spot at Tulane. She worked as a pathologist, and was noted by her colleagues at NIGMS and elsewhere, as well as those she mentored, as an able leader and communicator and an advocate for women and minorities in the sciences.

The book is enjoyable, though perhaps a bit short. Given that this biography was written after Kirschstein died in 2009, it is not surprising that Davis had to rely on Kirschstein's writings and achievements to craft the story. But the biography would have benefitted from more direct conversations with the people who knew Kirschstein best. The book does a great job of getting the reader interested in Kirschstein's life, but does not always do as good a job at satiating the reader's curiosity. Kirschstein seems too big a persona to fit within the volume's covers.

Always There is a fitting title for a book about Kirschstein's life. Even after her death, the contributions she made resonate. "Ruth ... shepherded the NIH through many achievements and as many crises," Davis writes. "And she nurtured the lives and careers of so many."

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