The Man Who Loves Women Who Love Science

Why can't all men be like Nobel Laureate Paul Greengard?
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Why can't all men be like Nobel Laureate Paul Greengard?

Shortly after he was awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on transmitters in the brain, Dr. Greengard decided to endow a scientific prize of his own -- one most of his fellow Nobel laureates could never even hope to win. Awarded annually by Rockefeller University, The Pearl Meister Greengard Prize spotlights achievement in the field of biomedical research by an outstanding woman. Named after Greengard's mother, the $100,000 prize is one man's attempt to put a plus in a column that carries a lot of minuses.

"I've seen many terrible examples of prejudice against women," Dr. Greengard said on the phone recently. "It's built-in and people don't even realize it. When I first announced the prize, there was an article saying I was giving money to help women in the sciences. I got 500 emails from women, each of which would make you cry. It made me realize the enormous amount of discrimination that still occurs. A lot of women are suffering more than we realize."

This year's Pearl Meister Greengard Prize will be awarded today to McGill University Professor Dr. Brenda Milner for her work in cognitive neuroscience. According to The New York Academy of Sciences, Dr. Milner's work has provided "landmark discoveries in human memory and elucidated the involvement of the brain's temporal lobes in emotional responses, hearing, memory and speech."

In Dr. Milner's case, the prize represents recognition more than encouragement. "She's in her nineties, so you can imagine the battles she's fought," said Dr. Greengard. "She's not received as many awards as she deserves."

Dr. Greengard cites Dr. Milner's ground-breaking, long-term study of a patient -- H.M. -- who suffered from epilepsy and underwent radical brain surgery to try and control seizures. The surgery caused the patient to suffer from amnesia which led to a breakthrough in understanding how the brain works, including the role of the frontal lobes in processing memory and organizing information.

According to Dr. Greengard, there were "practically no women in science" at the time Dr. Milner earned her undergraduate degree from Cambridge in 1939 and her Ph. D. from McGill in 1952. High-level science is difficult enough, but the added pressure of gender discrimination can make it nearly impossible. "I've seen very talented women leave science because of prejudice," Dr. Greengard said.

A recent report from the Council of Graduate Schools shows a steady increase among women earning graduate degrees in the STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, and math -- over the past decade. "The percentage is increasing," added Dr. Greengard. "There are more women in medical school than men. Still, you look at the academic positions and the higher you go, the fewer women there are."

Dr. Greengard is doing his best to even the score. His own Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience lab at The Rockefeller University boasts a 50/50 gender split, not based on any quota, he's quick to point out. "I don't do Affirmative Action," he said. "I just take the best people."

Greengard and his wife, sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard, created the prize to celebrate a remarkable woman who never had the opportunity to fulfill her potential. The scientist's mother died giving birth to him. "By all accounts, she was a very bright woman," he said. "But she was restricted to doing secretarial work."

Now the name Pearl Meister Greengard is associated with some of the most brilliant minds in science.

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