Harvard Educational Review
  1. Journeys of Women in Science and Engineering

    No Universal Constants

    By Susan A. Ambrose, Kristin L. Dunkle, Barbara B. Lazarus, Indira Nair, and Deborah A. Harkus

    Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997. 512 pp. $59.95

    Journeys of Women in Science and Engineering: No Universal Constants is an impressive resource that chronicles the personal profiles of eighty-eight women in science and engineering, in areas ranging from medicine to computers to ecology to aerodynamics. It is of special interest to educators and counselors who want positive role models for their students, as well as to students seeking such support.

    The idea of mentoring for girls interested in science and for women who have recently entered the fields of science and engineering has received a great deal of publicity recently. The National Science Foundation and the Association of Women in Science, among others, are supporting various mentoring projects nationwide to help establish this missing support network. When the goal is to provide role models, however, the temptation is to provide a hagiography of women in science and engineering who have simply risen to the heights of achievement in their fields--in essence, offering a roster of women in haloes and a map that all girls and women can simply follow into science and engineering.

    This unique collection reveals the humanness of these eighty-eight women and shows that, in this journey, there truly are "no universal constants." Each of these stories and each of these women follows varying trajectories into science and engineering. Nancy Rhoads, for example, was dissuaded by a college counselor from following her dream of pursuing physics and instead earned a degree in French literature. Unsatisfied by her career in that field, Rhoads returned to college and earned her doctorate in aerospace engineering. It could have been tempting to stop here--a woman overcomes all obstacles to get what she has chosen--but the authors do not slide into easy good/bad dichotomies. Instead, they also chronicle the costs of such decisions. Rhoads's life, despite her courageous journey, has not been a one-way journey to success, but, rather, enormously complex and very human, and the authors are careful to make that apparent to readers. As their title suggests, there are no universal constants for women in science, and there are also no easy answers.

    Throughout the collection, the authors meet their double objective: to show the "diverse journeys" that women scientists take in life and "the joy of doing the work, the satisfaction of intellectual challenge and achievement, the excitement of discovery, creation, and service, and the fulfillment of a good life's work" (p. 31). They show us and all considering a career in science and engineering honest pictures of the pleasures, the problems, and the price of those choices.

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