AAAS Lecture Series on Women in Science and Engineering

Essay: Nora Sabelli

Much of my professional life has been devoted to promoting scientific research and education, and to promoting the role of women in science. Having been educated in Argentina and participated in scientific exchanges in Latin America, I am aware of the obstacles posed by economic, social and political factors in that region to scientific research and education. I am seeking this fellowship because it represents an opportunity to address these obstacles in order ultimately to support the long-term success of the women scientists and, therefore, science generally. Most importantly, in my view, the fellowship offers an opportunity to address multiple audiences including researchers, students, educators, and policymakers in order to coordinate the growth and development of scientific research, education and infrastructure.

My commitment to these issues is related to my work in science education which, in turn, is related to my education and research in chemistry. Chemistry is three-dimensional and time-dependent; these fundamental characteristics made chemists explore the promise of computing early on. The impact of computers on chemistry was accelerating as I finished my undergraduate education, and it was inevitable then that I would ultimately choose to work in theoretical and computational chemistry.

This choice was reinforced by education reform activities that were then taking place at the Facultad de Ciencias Exactas y Naturales of the University of Buenos Aires. To make a long story short, a group of chemistry students close to graduation participated semi-officially in rethinking the undergraduate curriculum, and I was one of them. My contribution to the plan would be to become the expert on theoretical organic chemistry, which I as able to do with a CONICET external fellowship (CONICET is the then newly formed equivalent of the NSF). The research director I proposed, M.J.S.Dewar, FRS, was moving at the time from London to the University of Chicago, and there I went. At the time, the graduate research prospects for women students, including at UofC, were few and far between. The group of chemistry women graduate students consisted of five women: one English, one Chinese, one Lithuanian, one American, and myself. We were joined in our endeavors by another woman, the Chemistry Librarian, who was an Italian chemist. We felt our joint mission was to talk, mostly informally, with undergraduate women students either before or after their formal "advising" meeting with faculty. These students were seldom if ever encouraged to pursue graduate studies, at least at Chicago, and we wanted them to know that their choices were indeed broader‹either at Chicago or elsewhere.

Since then I have often returned to the question of why the perspective of foreign women students and of native ones differed so drastically. And I have thought a great deal in the intervening years about the social and political reasons why women from societies that were regarded as male-dominated came to be so much more open to professional work‹one would have to agree that the foreign cultures represented by that particular group of women students were indeed male-dominated. I have been conscious of how I was mentored by strong male figures‹Michael Dewar, Manuel Sadosky, and my father, in particular‹and have enjoyed mentoring others (both men and women) whenever possible. But I do not forget when doing so that the expectations created by my parents when they named me Nora because of Ibsen's "A Doll's House," shaped my thinking. I am aware of the circumstances that have made my growth as a researcher in a physical science easier than it has been for others, and where the pitfalls lie.

As a condition of the CONICET fellowship, I returned to Buenos Aires and defended my thesis, after completing the research at UofC. My career from then on followed a convoluted path, both because of the university situation in Argentina and because of family needs. One of my sons was born before I returned, and another one after.

To make another long‹and painful‹story short, I returned to Chicago and started work at the Laboratory for Molecular Structure and Spectra. My postdoctoral research at LMSS was part of the development of the MC-SCF (multi configuration self-consistent field) methods that would play an important role in quantum chemistry. I continued to work with these methods as a consultant to several divisions of Argonne National Laboratory, near Chicago.

If I had to name one characteristic of my quantum chemistry work, it would be the study of the importance of the environment in the electronic structure of atoms or molecules undergoing reactions. This required some methodological development, but mostly careful attention to the details of the calculations and to their chemical interpretation. Much of the interpretation, particularly in the work with porphyrins and phtalocyanines, involved the use of computer graphics to "see" the special arrangement of the electrons as a reaction proceeded. Some of the computer programs used in this work were installed for use by colleagues at the University of Buenos Aires during my stay there in 1984. The insights that came out of this work, and the ways in which graduate students‹my own and others‹came to understand these insights, influenced my later work at NSF on what science education could be if it followed the evolution of science itself.

In retrospect, I pursued what can be called a "low-key" career path, choosing to work continuously on research but not attempt a more traditional academic or industrial career. I am happy and content‹and successful, I might add--with the result of the many choices that had to be made, but I am aware of the limitations this particular choice has imposed. Were I ten or fifteen years younger, the path might have been smoother, and perhaps more visible, but not necessarily more productive, satisfactory, or successful. I have managed to gain a strong sense of who I am professionally when at my best, which may not have developed so well in a more openly competitive environment. So it is hard for me to talk about honors or awards; I have none except a sense of intellectual and mutual collegiality with people whose work I respect and admire. I have learned that I can achieve more through and with others than by myself.

It is this understanding that makes the Latin American Lecture Series appealing to me. We have come to realize how important expectations are for women to succeed in scientific careers. But expectations are a starting point; the human and organizational infrastructure that must be in place for individuals to succeed in the face of problems is often not so obvious. If these infrastructures are not in place, or even if their importance not openly recognized, the burden on individual women becomes so much greater.

Since retiring from the University of Illinois I have learned much about empowering others, and creating conditions for multiple, reinforcing, sustainable, successes. When I visited Argentina, Brazil and Chile after many years of working in the US, I was struck by the many different and significant effects that the presence of researchers with experience in research infrastructure, research administration, and similar areas can have. It takes strong research programs, and recurrent study of these programs, to support individual researchers in being fully productive. Culling the elite is not always helpful to those left behind, and may be the unintended consequence of our actions, particularly when the needed infrastructure is missing.

 

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