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Stanford researcher Helen Blau

From experiment to prestige: A look at two pioneering women scientists

When they arrived at Stanford in 1978, Professors Carla Shatz and Helen Blau were two of the first women to be hired on the tenure tract for basic science faculty. In a video, they discuss the paths they've taken and reflect on the rewards and challenges of their lives as women scientists.

In the business I'm in (news and social media) the emphasis is very much on the now: A study is published, a report is released, a story is written – and our job is to share and promote. And then we move on.

Every once in awhile, though, a story sticks with you — and you find yourself returning to it again and again and falling a little more in love each time. One of those stories, for me, is actually a video — one that highlights the journey of two longtime Stanford scientists. And it's the perfect thing to share here, in honor of International Women's Day.

Produced by a few of my colleagues several years back, the piece tells the story of Carla Shatz, PhD, professor of neurobiology and director of Stanford Bio-X, and Helen Blau, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology and director of the Baxter Laboratory for Stem Cell Biology. They both came to Stanford in 1978, becoming two of the first women to be hired on the tenure track for basic science faculty.

Sharing that "I could never have possibly imagined that I would become a research scientist and professor at a major American university," Shatz said she believed that when she and Blau arrived, "we were viewed, in the most positive way, by our colleagues as experiments.” 

“I think it was an experiment; people were watching to see how we did," agreed Blau, noting the small number of women scientists (and lack of role models for her and Shatz) at that time. She soon decided that success would mean carving out her own path and not doing "things the way that everyone else did. I didn’t want to compete on the obvious questions but rather to think in a nontraditional way.”

Blau and Shatz went on to make great accomplishments in their fields: They're both members of the National Academy of Sciences and they've won numerous honors and awards — including last year's election into the prestigious Pontifical Academy of Sciences for Blau and the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience for Shatz in 2016. In the video they discuss the trajectories of their careers and reflect on the rewards and challenges of their lives as women scientists. And they make clear their continuous love for their work.

“From time to time I’ve... entertained [career] alternatives, but I’m never as excited as when I’m doing an experiment," said Blau.

Now excuse me while I hit play again.

Video by Todd Holland

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