How did STS and ISEF affect your career? We hear from a lot
of alumni that the fairs were a pivotal moment in their lives.
STS, in particular, convinced me that I was good enough to compete at the highest levels. I competed during the time of the
Sputnik threat. And so I got lots of outreach from companies, from
individuals around the state, who just said, “Oh, we’re so glad you’re
interested in science.” I felt like I was doing something extraordinarily important, not only for myself but for the country.
You’re a trailblazer. You were a university professor with
a Ph.D., at a time when there weren’t a lot of women in the
sciences. What kind of challenges did you face?
I was a chemistry major at Grinnell College in Iowa. There were
other women who majored in chemistry, and also women in graduate
school, but there were no women professors. That was something
that I found fairly troubling. In fact, when I went to Chapel Hill in
1990 as a university administrator, I put together some analyses of
both Duke University and the University of North Carolina about
the number of women faculty. I became quite vocal about increasing
the number of women professors.
I never felt like people said, “You can’t do this.” I always got encouragement everywhere I went. That’s not to say I didn’t face obstacles.
The first roadblock that I recall facing was obtaining a faculty position at the University of Kentucky. There were no women on the
biochemistry faculty, and I had to spend more time as a postdoctoral
fellow than was ideal — but I also learned a lot during that time. Eventually, I was able to get a faculty position.
I understand you had an opportunity to meet President John F.
Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson while you were
in Washington, D.C., competing in STS. Do you remember that
experience, and what was that like for you?
We knew that meeting the president was an extraordinary opportunity. What we didn’t understand was that Kennedy wouldn’t be with
us very long after that. In retrospect, it was bitters weet.
All the girls were instructed to wear white gloves and hats to the
White House to meet with the president and vice president. Everybody was totally smitten with Kennedy because he was a young, fresh,
energetic face of the presidency in a way that everybody was excited
about. When he was killed, I couldn’t quite believe that I had that experience of meeting President Kennedy. It was very, very meaningful,
and I’ve remembered it forever.
What was your experience at ISEF like?
I was engaged in local science fairs before 1959. I went to a lab
school that was associated with the University of Northern Iowa,
and the faculty was very encouraging, giving me space and time to
do my project, which aimed to demonstrate the development of
resistance in bacteria to penicillin. It was very simple, but it was
exciting for me.
The fair was exhilarating to me because I was able to meet more
students interested in science. I was the only person in my small school
who was interested in scientific research and participated in science
fairs. Through ISEF, I was able to meet other students from around the
country and some international students.
Maya Ajmera, President & CEO of Society for Science & the Public and Publisher of
Science News, sat down to chat with Mary Sue Coleman, President of the Association of
American Universities and a former President of the University of Michigan. Coleman is
an alumna of the 1961 Westinghouse Science Talent Search (STS) and the 1959 and 1960
International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). She is also a member of the Society’s Board
of Trustees. We are thrilled to share an edited summary of the conversation.
MARY SUE COLEMAN
PRESIDENT OF THE ASSOCIATION OF