Laurie H. Glimcher, MD

I was the middle of three closely-spaced daughters born to parents who had decided that girls could do anything boys could do. Both my parents expected and assumed that my two sisters and I would lead independent lives and would have our own careers. My parents’ conviction that there were no limits to what energetic, bright girls could achieve was a persistent theme in our household and was woven into who I was early on.

I went to Radcliffe, where I was in the second class of women who were truly a part of Harvard College. I was a true-blue “hippie” and went around clothed in long dresses, demonstrated against the Vietnam War, skipped many classes, indulged my passion for acting, and blew up my “unknown” compound during organic chemistry lab. However, by the end of my time there, I had caught the “research bug” and was struggling on whether I wanted to be a doctor or a scientist (or neither, as I had vague longings to be an actress as well.)

In medical school, I became fascinated by how the immune system fights off pathogens while at the same time being able to distinguish foreign proteins from self. After my internal medicine training, I spent three fantastic years at the Laboratory of Immunology in NIAID headed by Bill Paul, a wonderful scientist and mentor. He urged me to take on a risky project to generate class II MHC mutant antigen-presenting cell lines, which was greeted by great skepticism by many colleagues. Remarkably, we were successful and this taught me an important lesson: breakthroughs are only made by those who are willing to dare and to innovate. Bill also taught me a lot about running a lab and being an effective mentor, advice which I continue to emulate today.

I returned to Harvard to obtain subspecialty training in Rheumatology and to start research in my own lab. It was a difficult time as I had no mentors at that time and there was no senior faculty member who was looking after my intellectual, emotional, or financial welfare. I had two small children and my husband was doing his surgical training at that time, so I was often a single parent. I was incredibly lucky to have the support of my parents close by, who stepped in to lend a hand frequently. If you possibly can, I recommend living near your parents or family members who will love your children. In many ways, it is the simplest and best solution to the problem of melding family and work.

One worthwhile piece of advice to young women scientists: if you want children, have them. Do not sacrifice family for career- men don’t have to and neither do you. I recall the statement by my younger son at age 12, after accompanying me to the ASCI meeting where I received the Distinguished Investigator Award: “I’m confused- are you a famous scientist who wins prizes, or are you the mom who snuggles us and sings to the dog?” It’s not easy, but there is nothing that can compare to that.

I have always felt like an intruder. An outsider who wasn’t really a bona fide scientist but just happened/strayed into the field, took some risks and got lucky. I’ve discovered that many if not most scientists feel this way at least some of the time, and this is particularly common amongst female scientists. What I did have was a lot of energy, a passion for immunology and a willingness to wing it on the basis of incomplete knowledge. I was a master at multitasking and working in the midst of chaos, (a talent I’ve found usually correlates with the presence of two X chromosomes). Most of my grants and papers were written in the family room of our home, at first on a yellow pad and later on my laptop, surrounded by the kids, their friends, the dogs and whoever else happened to be around. I woke up every morning to my family and came back every night to them; always with a knowledge of reality, balance and the belief that in the long run, if I didn’t make a certain discovery, someone else would- I was far from irreplaceable. The reason to be a scientist was because I loved it- it chose me rather than vice versa. I believed as Siddhartha said, “Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.”

I’m still as excited about the science as I was 30 years ago, and hope that I have some good years left. Most of all, I look forward to savoring the success of the next generation of female physician scientists. May they have as much fun as I have.