A Female Scientist Is Entitled to Her Title

If there is one 2014 resolution I hope the media makes good on, it's a vow to describe female scientists with words that fairly and respectfully convey the extent of their accomplishments. An example at the end of 2013 illustrates why.

The New York Times carried an obituary for Dr. Leonard A. (Len) Herzenberg, a visionary Stanford University scientist who, among other accomplishments, developed the fluorescence-activated cell sorting instrument, also known as FACS, that revolutionized biomedical research. As widely used as the microscope, FACS has markedly advanced basic understanding of disease and enabled development of new diagnostics and treatments for cancer, HIV infection and other illnesses. This work, accomplished over a period of some 40 years, required the close integration of the team of engineers, physicists, programmers, and biologists.

Dr. Herzenberg always credited his wife, Stanford Professor Leonore A. (Lee) Herzenberg, his lifetime scientific partner, as having played a crucial role in the development of the FACS, as well.

However, when reading Len's obituary, I had an unpleasant surprise. While Len was referred to as Dr. Herzenberg, Lee was Ms. Herzenberg, not just once, but four times. The title "Dr." or "Professor" would have been both more accurate and appropriate.

It is true that Lee Herzenberg earned this title well after she had begun making and publishing important discoveries. However, earn it she did; I can testify to that directly. I was a postdoctoral fellow in Len and Lee's lab from 1980 through 1986, at the time that Lee collected the work she had done into a thesis and traveled to Paris to the University of Paris V (Sorbonne) to present and defend it. She returned with a Doctorat d'etat-es-science diploma in 1985 -- roughly equivalent to the British Ds.C -- and much more demanding than an American Ph.D.

Lee Herzenberg, buoyed by her life model, Nobel Prize winner Dr. Barbara McClintock, struggled as a woman trying to be a scientist. When Len went to Caltech for graduate studies in biochemistry in the 1950s, Lee continued her education as an undergraduate student at Pomona College, and found that women were trained to be laboratory technicians, not independent scientists. Caltech did not accept women until 1970. Frustrated, Lee attended Pomona during the day but worked with Len in the lab at Caltech at night and on weekends. Soon she got to know the Caltech faculty and vice versa, eventually gaining permission to attend graduate classes, submit class work, and take exams, even though she could not officially register or obtain a degree.

When Len completed his doctorate and moved to the Pasteur Institute in 1955, Lee was welcomed unofficially into his lab and continued to work and study. Finally, when Len started his lab at Stanford in 1959, Lee worked with him and ultimately, established herself as an independent scientist as well as a collaborator. Her internationally recognized expertise in a group of immune cells called B cells (B for bone marrow) led some to anoint Lee the "Godmother of B cells." Both Len and Lee were exceptional scientists, each publishing more than 450 scientific articles, sometimes together and sometimes independently.

While important strides have been made for female scientists since the time Lee started her career, we are not there yet. Gender disparities in science exist, evidenced, for example, by the relatively lower numbers of female professors and chairs in biological science departments in American universities and medical schools, despite equivalent numbers of male and female graduates from these schools for many years.

One of our many tasks as a society is to work against conscious and unconscious biases that seem to creep into assessments and descriptions of women scientists.

While it may seem inconsequential to refer to Leonore Herzenberg as Ms., and not Dr., a female scientist with the title of Dr. is more likely to be viewed as a strong leader and mentor. As "Dr." she is more likely to be invited to speak at meetings, to recruit strong graduate students and postdocs, and to be offered the best jobs. The words the media use to describe female scientists contribute to creating images of women scientists as agents and drivers of their science or, conversely when the terms are weak, as props and followers. Language matters.

Lee Herzenberg struggled and accomplished. The New York Times piece did her a disservice. As someone who learned first-hand from a scientific pioneer, I am thankful to have the opportunity to recount her journey and to write "Dr." Leonore Herzenberg.

(Dr. Paula Kavathas is Professor of Laboratory Medicine and of Immunobiology at Yale University School of Medicine. She is also Chair of the Yale Women's Faculty Forum.)