For her study of the relationships between behavior and other biological processes in natural populations, ecology and evolutionary biology professor Jeanne Altmann earned election to the National Academy of Sciences this year, dubbed by The New York Times "an honor considered second only to a Nobel Prize."
One of 72 inductees selected this year by fellow scientists, Altmann brings the total number of members affiliated with the University to 60. She is Princeton's only inductee this year.
"The early morning awakening call just seemed surreal, from some other space," Altmann, who is away because of a family illness, wrote in an email. "I am pleased, of course, and appreciative of the support and recognition that this represents."
Altmann's research centers on the challenge of studying animal populations in their natural habitat, without human disturbance. She has pioneered developments in observational techniques for the rigorous study of natural animal behavior.
Recently, Altmann's work has focused on using noninvasive processes such as fecal collection to shed light on a population's hormones and genotype — "all without ever having to touch the individuals we are studying," she said. "Using excreted steroid metabolites and DNA from cells that have been sloughed off, we can study processes that only a short time ago would have required repeated immobilization and blood sampling."
In an article Tuesday, the Times credited Altmann with being "instrumental in making the field of primatology less subjective and happenstance and more rigorously quantitative."
But Altmann is one of what is still a small number of successful women scientists. In a typical year, only about 5 to 10 new members of the Academy are women, though this year there were 17, according to the Times.
Many obstacles still exist for women in science, Altmann said — some resulting from society as a whole, others from gender biases and stereotypes and others still from the challenge of combining science and other commitments such as families.
"I think that each of us has been faced with different challenges and at different times," she said, "and there have probably been as many ways of overcoming them as there are women in science. In every case, though, I think an overriding, passionate commitment has been essential, and support from other women and from men has been critical as well."
Though she credits institutions such as Princeton with actively working to remove the more obvious obstacles, "many are much less simple, and not everyone is on board," she said.
Roughly half of the top undergraduate and graduate students in ecology, behavior and evolution a decade ago were women, she said, but the proportion of associate professors today is nowhere near that number.
"The fact that we still have a long way to go is frequently clear," she added, but said, "with commitment on the part of many individuals, changes are coming."
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