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Stanford scientist Lucy Shapiro: "It never occurred to me to question the things I wanted to do"

In the mid-1920s, Pearl Meister Greengard died giving birth to her son, the Nobel prize-winning scientist Paul Greengard, PhD. Decades later, Greengard and his wife established a prize to honor the very best female scientists, named after his missing mother. Although prizes abound in science, this is one of those prizes that scientists hold in the highest esteem. Today, Stanford developmental biologist Lucy Shapiro, PhD, will be awarded the 2014 Pearl Meister Greengard Prize. Shapiro revolutionized the understanding of the bacterial cell as an engineering paradigm whose cell division leads to the generation of diversity, a phenomenon fundamental to all life. She spoke recently about this award.

Like other accomplished scientists, you’ve won many awards. How does this one stack up?

It is very special. It’s the only big deal award for a woman  - I’m just so tremendously honored. Paul Greengard felt that women do not get their just due as real leaders in science, so the whole point of this award is to recognize women scientists with significant achievements, or breakthroughs in science.

It’s not just a prize for women in science, it’s a prize for actually doing something transformative in the field of biomedical sciences.

Did you have role models?

I had many role models. When I started out a whole bunch of years ago, there were woman at Albert Einstein College of Medicine that had an enormous effect on my life. Really smart, accomplished women with families who were full professors. It made a difference in the trajectory of my career.

Another role model was Barbara McClintock, PhD. She never married, never had any children, and she was an unbelievably brilliant scientist. She was my role model not necessarily because she was a woman, her influence was simply being a great scientist.

There’s another part to this, one that’s hard to write about, but is critical. It’s particularly critical for women to be extremely confident. You have to know what you are good at and to not feel in any way threatened. One of the major things my parents instilled in me was a sense of confidence and a feeling that I can do anything.

It never occurred to me to question the things I wanted to do. Other people's remarks rolled off like rainwater - I didn’t care. One of the things I tell my women students and postdocs is to act confident, even if you don’t feel confident.

It’s hard to be a female scientist -

That’s not always true. It depends on your goals and your mindset and how you’re willing to live your life. I think that to be a good scientist, you have to have a deep passion for it that supersedes all kinds of stuff. Were there roadblocks or difficulties? Of course. I know that for all top scientists, the unchanging, deep passion, the central core of their life, is their science. That doesn’t mean that we are not mothers and grandmothers and part of society and complete people. But the real core, the passion is our lab.

You have to stay true to what you know to be the core of your life. Do more obstacles get thrown at women? I suppose that’s true. But I haven’t had a life of that.

I don’t want to make this award all about women. Yes, of course, it’s been given because I’m a woman scientist. But it’s also because I’ve done something meaningful as a scientist.

It always irritates me when I’ve won some award and they always write “I was the first woman this, or the first woman that.” Science is gender neutral, it doesn’t matter.

I won this because I’m a damn good scientist. I’ve translated my work into a company that makes new antibiotics and antifungals. I sit on many top advisory panels that have the opportunity to dictate policy - I can influence people.

I have a real concern about emerging infectious diseases and the increase in antibiotic resistance. I try to get people to understand the problem by speaking nationally and internationally. There are things that we can do as senior scientists, omitting the fact that I happen to be a woman.

We can be leaders, spokespeople, to get across the message to our policy leaders so we can influence the health of our nation.

What advice do you have for balancing a family and personal life with a demanding career?

I’ve been very fortunate to have a very supportive husband, Harley McAdams, PhD, also a professor at Stanford. We’ve raised three children and have four grandchildren.

My advice is, don’t feel guilty. When you’re home with your family and your children, be 100 percent there. And when you’re in the laboratory, don’t feel bad either.

Include your family in your scientific life. Dinners were sacrosanct and I talked about work. I took my children to meetings and seminars. It wasn’t two separate lives, it was one.

What is your favorite part of your job?

Working with my students and postdocs, hands down, no question.

Being a professor at Stanford is an incredible gift. It’s the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me. This is a unique university and I’m tremendously honored to be on the faculty.

Previously: National Medal of Science winner Lucy Shapiro: "It's the most exciting thing in the world to be a scientist", Image of the Week: National Medal of Science recipient Lucy Shapiro, Stanford’s Lucy Shapiro receives National Medal of Science and New method may speed identification of antibiotic targets

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