I was raised in Centerville, Ohio, which is a suburb of the thriving cultural Mecca of Dayton, Ohio (home of the Wright brothers, the Dayton Peace Accords, and not much else). Both of my parents have PhDs in chemistry. They are still married after more than 45 years, two PhDs, five children, and several careers. I was the fourth child. My mother once told me that I was the only one they ever planned. My older siblings picked on me pretty viciously. I clearly remember my brother holding me by the ankles suspended upside down over the stairwell of our house. My parents had a very hands-off parenting style, at least when it came to mediating our disputes. This meant that we all had to learn to fend for ourselves at an early age. My parents helped by trying to educate us in every way possible. When a fuse blew in my house, my dad not only showed me how to fix it, but also gave me a primer in electricity, simple circuits, and neurochemistry (and how the aforementioned electricity might disrupt it). When my mother baked pies, she would explain how starches polymerize and measure the Crisco by water displacement. I swore I would never be a scientist.
I did not always play well with others. I was pretty brainy and I think they were a little intimidated. I wore black and wrote bad poetry. I wanted to be a writer. I had an enormous crush on my high school American Literature teacher, Larry Schenck. One other thing that happened while I was in high school was the highway by-pass known as I-675 was cut through my town. My town went from a largely rural area to a mass of strip malls in the space of only a few years. That had a big effect on me, and I think it is one of the reasons I care so much about the environment.
I did not know where to go to college. My fellow students were determined to get in to places like Princeton and Harvard. I wanted none of it. Secretly I was afraid I couldn’t compete at a really good school, and I was too shy to go too far from home. I also had a good reason for staying close to home: my little sister was only three at the time and I didn’t want to miss her growing up. Larry told me to go to Wittenberg, which was only about 45 minutes away up in Springfield, Ohio. So I did.
Wittenberg was (and still is) a small liberal arts school. Back then it had about 2000 students. My high school had 2700. So that was good. I did a lot of fun stuff in college. I edited one of the school journals, joined a debate team, went on trips to Russia (with a group) and Europe (alone-see photo), and dated a guy who played lead guitar in a rock band. But the funnest thing I did was DJ on my college radio station. This was back when we had vinyl (vinyl!) records and you had to “cue them up”. I loved it and still love new music. It also was really good training for public speaking because I learned how to talk into a microphone. I went through several majors in college: English, Russian, psychology, biology, and finally, chemistry. I’m still not sure how I ended up in the sciences. Genetic destiny? I think I felt that the non-science majors were too squishy. Not exact enough. Not enough of a challenge, maybe. It started to dawn on me that my defining characteristic is that I get bored easily. I needed a challenge. So I switched my major to chemistry as I was beginning my senior year, which meant that I had to take nothing but chemistry that year in order to graduate on time. One of my favorite sayings is: “I may be dumb, but I’m not stupid.” In this case I was demonstrating that I may be intelligent, but I’m not always smart. Anyway, I survived.
I did one other crazy thing my senior year. I started dating the guy who would eventually become my first husband. When I graduated, I packed up the hatchback of my Chevy Nova and moved to New Jersey to be with him. We got married a year later. I went to work at a pharmaceutical company doing quality control lab work. It was a good job and I learned a lot, but, predictably, I got bored with it. Also, I worked for an idiot of a boss who was a male chauvinist. He actually told some of my (male) co-workers, “Don’t talk to Lisa. She’s young and impressionable, and I don’t want you guys giving her any bad ideas.” I realized that until I went and got a PhD, I would always be working for some yahoo who thinks he’s smarter than me. So I decided to go to graduate school. I wanted to do ‘something environmental,’ and environmental engineering sounded a lot cooler than environmental science. Back when I was choosing a graduate school, there was no internet to speak of. I went the library and got a book on graduate schools and looked up the ones that had environmental engineering programs. I wrote away for information and waited several weeks to get it! Can you imagine?!
Graduate school was very difficult for me for several reasons. One, it was the first time in my life I wasn’t one of the smartest people around. Not even close. The courses were much harder than anything I had as an undergrad. Two, I did not get along with my advisor. I was her first student. This is nearly always a bad thing. Three, my marriage was not healthy. I was too young and stupid to realize it at the time, though. When graduation loomed, we moved back to NJ, and I was lucky and got a post-doc position at Rutgers.
I love Rutgers because working here is the first time in my life where I feel accepted for who I am. I am a brain. A geek. A nerd. I’m also crazy and fun and outspoken and I ride horses and listen to 311. Here, now, in my job, it is finally okay to be all of those things. It’s more than okay, it is appreciated and celebrated here. At Rutgers I went from a post-doc to a “Laboratory Researcher” to an Assistant Research Professor (not on the tenure track) to an Assistant Professor (tenure track). So I sort of moved up the ranks all at the same institution, which is kind of unusual in my field. During this time I also had two kids. I think the experience of getting my PhD and succeeding at my work gave me a huge amount of confidence in myself that I never had growing up. Surviving Mommy Boot Camp helped a lot, too. All that confidence came in handy when I decided to get a divorce. I never, ever thought that my marriage would end in divorce. But it happens to the best of us and it’s a lot, LOT easier when you have a solid career with job security and medical benefits. My financial independence made it possible for me to concentrate solely on personal issues when I was considering divorce, without financial fears getting in the way.
We talk a lot about why women aren’t going in to or staying in careers in science and engineering. That’s why I’m writing this. So here are my nuggets of wisdom. JFK said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I say, ask not what you can do for science, but what science can do for you. Getting a great education and working hard and succeeding at a difficult thing is the most rewarding experience on earth. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Research shows that people are happiest when they are working hard at achieving a difficult goal. Not when they achieve the goal, but when they are working toward it. My career in science gives me self-confidence and enormous satisfaction, and guarantees that I will never get bored. I went in to environmental chemistry because I wanted to make the world a better place, and I feel I have done that. But more importantly, I made myself a better person. I don’t have to look back and say, “I wish I had had the guts to do that difficult thing.” I did it. Nobody can take that away from me.