Mary Lowe, an assistant professor at Loyola College, is one of 30 recipients of this year's Presidential Faculty Fellow Awards, which will support her research to the tune of $100,000 a year for five years.
Generally, schools like Loyola put such a heavy load of teaching on their faculty that original research is put on the back burner, particularly in scientific areas that require expensive laboratories and technical support. But the 33-year-old Dr. Lowe, a Harvard graduate who received her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, is trying to prove that top-level research can take place in the atmosphere of a small liberal arts college.
QUESTION: As you know, the dearth of women in scientific fields has received a great deal of publicity. The percentage of females in physics is quite small. Was this a barrier you had to overcome?
ANSWER: I come from a well-educated family where science was important -- my parents are Chinese, my father is a physician -- but where mainly we were encouraged to do well. I was attracted to science more than other subjects. I was better at it than, say, English. My mother, whose training was in education, doesn't really understand what I do, but values the education.
I seem to have been immune to those pressures that drove girls away from science. I'm not sure why. At Penn, the incoming class in physics was usually 20 to 25. If there was one woman in there, that was a lot. So out of 100 students, if there were five
women, that was a lot.
As for what causes that, I guess I accept all the reasons put forth to some extent -- social pressures, parental influence, biases some teachers may have had, even genetic aptitude. I don't know the main cause, but the lack of women is certainly very striking.
You do hear a lot about the need for women role models and it is true that there are not enough. Any woman who goes into this field has to devise her own way of coping. She has no model to compare herself with. That was the case for me.
But at the same time, I don't think a woman role model is necessary. You need some models but they can be white males. I found that I couldn't use just one person as a mentor, I needed a number of them. I had to pull together something that worked for me.
That research careers develop most rapidly during childbearing years is a factor in women continuing in science. She has to accept that if she does have children she will have to accommodate in certain ways which will probably mean slowing down her research.
I'm just going through this as I gave birth to a daughter last August, and I'm still trying to figure out how to cope. There is no simple answer. It is time-consuming. But in the modern marriage, it is something the husband and wife experience together and the burden of time falls on both parents.
Q: What was the proposal that got you this grant?
A: The area I was originally attracted to was intra-arterial drug injection. I saw a paper about trying to feed a catheter into an artery in the brain trying to reach a tumor. The idea was to inject a drug right into the site of the tumor which they thought would be more effective than injecting it in the arm or someplace and hoping it would still be effective when it reached the tumor.
But what happened is that when they injected the drug through the catheter, sometimes it went to the tumor and sometimes it went in a totally different direction which led to side effects.
It turns out there's a very complicated geometry in there and the flow of fluids through that is very difficult to understand. That was the problem that attracted me, not the specific applications, but basic flow behavior in complicated geometry. I have a lab set up here and have been working on the arterial flow, which is through large scale pipes. Now I am going to try to study it in pipes the size of capillaries, the tiniest blood vessels.
Q: Were you surprised to win?
A: Of course. You don't apply for a grant like this expecting to get it, but rather to put your name, and Loyola's name, in circulation. Just filling out an application is hard work. I did it just after giving birth, sometimes sitting at the word processor, typing with one hand, holding the baby while she nursed with the other. Then switching hands.
One unusual thing about this grant is that it emphasized it wanted to fund people to develop innovative programs in teaching and research. That's a phrase that is not common in a grant this size, one normally expects the emphasis just on research. I think I got this award because of a combination of teaching and research.
Q: Do you find your teaching is a help or hindrance to your research?
A: It is both rewarding and frustrating. The rewarding aspect is the constant contact with students who are always changing. They are young and lively. That is more than I can say for the colleagues I had when I worked in the labs at Los Alamos where most of the researchers were older. The students are not as settled in their life, which adds a lot of energy to the environment and energizes me. That's one reason I chose not to stay in an all-research setting.
But it is frustrating because with the type of teaching load you have at a place like Loyola, you spend so much time teaching you don't have enough time to work on your own projects. In teaching you have millions of deadlines, lectures to write, papers to grade. In research, the deadlines are few, so, of course, that's what you let go.
Since the early '80s here at Loyola, they have pushed the faculty to do more research. I can see that they are setting up programs that will allow that.
Q: To many, science has gotten so technical, it is something left to the experts. Why do you think a knowledge of science is important to the general population?
A: I think a person should have some knowledge of the scientific issues that confront society. To understand environmental concerns requires some knowledge of chemistry, some knowledge of the atomic basis of matter. That's needed to understand nuclear power issues, which raise a great deal of fear among people.
Medical issues that affect everyone mean that there should be some understanding of human anatomy. Infectious diseases mean that you should have some knowledge of cells, bacteria, viruses, things like that.
Beyond that, there should be some understanding of the scientific process, which is a very nebulous term. People should realize that there is applied and basic research. Applied research, which goes after a specific problem, is usually very short term. Basic research, which looks for more fundamental knowledge, is long term because you are never sure if you are going to get anything useful or not. But it's exceedingly important.
The United States appears to be placing more emphasis on short-term applied research. It's important that people understand that the two types of research are related. If they don't understand the scientific process, they won't understand why basic research is so important.
What I'm really trying to say is that people should know enough to make some kind of reasonable decision about who to elect, who should represent them on scientific issues.