The Core of a Life
By Michael Fincham
There are four scientists in a small boat on a rainy day on the Chicamacomico River - and three are women. That may be more common now, but it was rare when Grace Brush began her career. She became a scientist in an age when women were not encouraged to enter science and were seldom supported by fellowships, grants and assistantships. Her career, like one of her classic sediment cores, was laid down in layers - uneven, interrupted layers that show some of the changes in the social ecology of science.
She came into science sideways. A native of Nova Scotia, the petite redhead graduated from a small college in Antigonish with some coursework in plants and paleontology, but a degree in economics. With that background she was able to land the unlikely position of lab assistant in a small coal geology laboratory in Nova Scotia. "My job was to make thin sections of coal and keep things clean," she says. As she was making slides, she looked through the microscope and saw structures caught in the the coal. Digging into the research literature, she realized she was looking at the remnants of ancient spores. "So I asked my bosses if I could study them,"says Brush. "And they said sure - in between making thin sections." From her part-time studies she was able to show how fossils could be used to identify which coal seams were best for mining.
That work kicked off her long academic odyssey. The Canadian Geological Service quickly sent her off to the University of Illinois for graduate work in coal paleobotany and just as quickly Brush discovered that her intellectual love was going to be evolutionary paleobotany. She returned to Nova Scotia to help set up a new laboratory, then headed off to Penn State where she discovered that her romantic love was going to be Lucien Brush, another graduate student. They married and then, like a lot of graduate school wives in the 1950s, she took her husband's name and began following him around from college to college and job to job.
When the newlyweds both applied to Harvard for doctoral work, Brush found that being a wife could be an even bigger drawback than being a woman. A wife, so the thinking went, was probably not going to be a serious scientist. "Most of the people at Harvard weren't going to put all the time and effort into training some woman who would not continue in the field," explains Brush. "It was a logical sort of thing at the time." On the basis of her work in Canada, however, Brush was accepted and mentored by Elso Barghoorn, a paleontologist famous for discovering evidence of the earliest life on earth. "Barghoorn did not distinguish between the scientific capabilities of men and women," says Brush. "He accepted me as a graduate student, and I have always felt a deep loyalty to him."
By earning a Ph.D. in science in 1956, Brush had already done something unusual for the era. In 1960, women received only 6.3% of the 6,000 Ph.D.s awarded in science and engineering by American universities. And many of those newly degreed women would have trouble finding full-time jobs or tenure-track positions in academe. A widely-cited study from 1975 found that women in science faced "a triple penalty." They first had to overcome barriers to entering science. Then they had to live with the psychic fallout - like self-limited aspirations - that can result from perceived discrimination. And finally women had to struggle with actual discrimination in finding funding, fellowships and jobs.
With their new Ph.D.s from Harvard, Lucien and Grace made a hard pact about work and marriage. "We would go wherever Lucien would get the best job opportunity, but I would always be able to keep up my interest," says Brush. "Basically I wanted to do paleobotanical work." The logic behind the pact was practical. "With a family, someone has to be the major bread winner," she says. "Someone has to be the most competitive person in their area - or nobody is going to win out in the job arena." Lucien would find jobs at the U.S. Geological Service, the University of Iowa, Princeton, and finally Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. And Grace would follow, looking for part-time jobs and research support, struggling to make progress in her work amid all the interruptions from moving, marriage and children.
The results were mixed. At the University of Iowa, for example, she immediately got a half-time faculty position, even though she was now a mother. "No questions asked about man or woman," says Brush. "It was a wonderful chance, I could work part time, I had children, I could get research money." When the couple moved back east to Princeton, however, her reaction was culture shock. "There were no women students or faculty whatsoever," laughs Brush. "And some people were surprised that a wife would want to pursue an independent career." When she was finally given laboratory space, she surprised people again by including salary money for herself on grant proposals. "I said I needed money to pay for baby sitters."
For Brush,a dogged persistence was clearly one of the keys to overcoming the "triple penalty" women faced in science. "In order to get what you need to pursue a scientific career, you had better forget you are a woman," she says. Though there were often suspicions about the commitment of women scientists, "subtleties in the atmosphere," she tried not to see them. "If I'd let that become a factor, then I'd have withdrawn from the research I loved so much."
The marriage pact produced early career frustration for a young woman so persistent about her science. "I resented it some of time. I thought why am I doing this," she admits. "But this was an agreement we made - and I'm glad we stuck with it." The payoff included a 40-year marriage, three children and a career that would redeem her old mentor's faith in her - a triple play as rare in science as in baseball. Planted finally at Johns Hopkins, at first with part-time support, she began building her reputation as a pioneer in the paleoecology of Chesapeake Bay. At Hopkins she moved from part time to full time, mentoring men and women and winning teaching awards. In 1990 she was finally promoted to tenured full professor. In 1994 her husband and long-time intellectual partner died from lung cancer.
How much has the world changed since Brush began her career? Perhaps not as much as you might expect - at least according to a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, titled From Scarcity to Visibility. The big change is that women in 1995 were earning 32 percent of the Ph.D.s in science and engineering. That's a huge jump from the 6.3% awarded back in 1960. And by 1995 women were holding over 30 percent of the faculty positions in many fields. "In terms of hiring, it certainly is a lot different," says Brush. "Opportunities are made available to women." For a number of years, organizations like the National Science Foundation, private foundations and many universities have been sponsoring gender-based programs to help new women scientists with funding, fellowships and mentoring.
There's a reason for all those programs, however. According to the National Academy of Sciences, women still lag behind men in competitions for research assistantships, lab space, tenure-track jobs and salary raises. They are less likely to hold full-time jobs and more likely to leave science, often out of "self-discouragement." Scientists who study gender disparities write about factors like the scarcity of women mentors, the prevalence of male-dominated professional networks, and a science culture that stresses "masculine" values like competition over "feminine" values like cooperation. According to the Academy report, the "triple penalty" is still in play, though not as strongly, for women in contemporary science.
Women are also more likely to carry most of the responsibility for child-raising, a common interruption of the degree track and the tenure track. And for Brush and many other researchers, that remains the issue that most complicates life for a woman who would be a scientist. "Sometimes I think we've come a long way, and sometimes I'm not sure how far we've actually come," says Brush, "because when it comes to providing women support for child raising, it is still very, very difficult."
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This page was last modified September 15, 2018