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Women's History Month: Shirley Tilghman


As part of a series for Women's History Month, The Daily Princetonian sat down with Professor Shirley Tilghman, President Emerita of Princeton University. The 'Prince' interviewed Tilghman about her journey through science, her time as President of the University, and advice she has for young students entering careers in science.

DP: What was it like being one of the first women in the role of President of a major US university, and the first woman President of Princeton?

Tilghman: This is an area where the Ivy League actually led rather than bringing up the rear. When I was appointed President, there were relatively few women leading major US universities, but by the time I left 12 years later, half the Presidents in the Ivy League were women.

When I was first appointed, it took about six months for some individuals on campus to get used to the idea that a woman would be leading Princeton, but it soon stopped being a question I was asked. I don’t think I was thought about or treated differently than any other President.

DP: Did you ever feel stereotype threat?

Tilghman: I didn’t feel stereotype threat. As a scientist, I am in a profession where females have traditionally been underrepresented so I learnt relatively early to navigate a world in which I was an underrepresented minority. When I was entering the field in the 1960s, there were relatively few women in science, right until I was heading my own big lab at a major university.

DP: What guided your entry into science, particularly molecular biology?

Tilghman: From a very young age I had loved mathematics, so my entry into science came from my love of puzzles. My father was an important mentor because it never occurred to him that a girl should not be doing math puzzles as opposed to playing with dolls. When I entered college, I was thinking of studying either mathematics or chemistry, but I realized by my third year that neither of those subjects really engaged me. That was when I discovered molecular biology through the Meselson-Stahl experiment. I think it’s one of the greatest experiments of the twentieth century and I still teach it today in my freshman seminar.

DP: Did you feel like you wanted to give up at any point in your career?

Tilghman: I never felt that I wanted to give up. I gained confidence that I could actually function as an independent scientist during graduate school. I had an advisor who let me be independent and treated me as a colleague as opposed to a student. Because I was designing my own experiments rather than having someone constantly telling me what to do, by the time I finished graduate school I knew I could do science.

DP: Do you think that mentorship is necessary for good science? What advice would you give to students who are picking a mentor?

Tilghman: I believe mentorship is essential for success in science. I had an excellent mentor in graduate school, and as a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institutes of Health, I had a fantastic mentor. He was supportive and encouraging, always directing me to think bold and aim high. It had a tremendous impact on my self-confidence as a scientist. As a faculty member leading a lab, I tried very hard to mentor my own students similarly and encourage them to do the best they possibly could.

I always say that the best way to pick a mentor is to talk to others who have been mentored by them, more so even than the person themselves. That’s how you will learn whether their mentees feel supported and encouraged.

DP: In what ways are you still involved with the Princeton community after your retirement from presidency?

Tilghman: The most important thing I do is teach. I teach a freshman seminar, and I have a joint appointment in the Woodrow Wilson School where I teach a fall course on genetics and public policy. Additionally, I advise two to three students a year on their JPs and senior thesis – lately, in addition to students from molecular biology, I have also been advising those from the Wilson School.

I have also been working, with some colleagues, to reform the biomedical enterprise so that it is more welcoming toward young scientists trying to get into the profession. There has been a truly dramatic change in the past few decades with a significant shift in the age of the biomedical workforce to an older average. Individuals of my generation are not retiring so there are many fewer positions for the generation that has just finished training and is training right now. This is a problem both for individuals and for science as a whole. If you look at the history of science, most scientists did their major work early in their career. By delaying their independence to the later 30s, 40s even, we are missing that period of important work. And it takes a toll on individuals as well – many of them are reaching ages where they want to settle down and build families, but are still stuck on their second or third postdocs, which I think is inhumane!

DP: What sort of advocacy do you do to improve the field for young scientists?

Tilghman: We advocate good public policy and practices both in government and universities so that their careers are as fulfilling as they can be. Historically the work in biomedical research is done by trainees. The structure of labs is such that there is one principal investigator and maybe one or two technicians, but everyone else is a trainee on their way to positions that don’t exist. We are trying to move to a lab structure where a greater percentage of work is done by people for whom this is their job, a well-paid one that is a career in its own right.

DP: The molecular biology department at Princeton is lauded for having almost negated the gender gap through years of consistent effort. Do you think the problem has been solved or do you believe there is still more work to be done?

Tilghman: I think we’ve come a long way since when I began my career. Today at least 50 percent of all Ph.D.s in biological research are being awarded to women, so there is parity in training. We’ve also been at this number long enough that there should be parity even 5-10 years later in their careers. However, women are less likely to be at Research 1 Universities, and if they are at R1 Universities, they are less likely to be at the level of full professors and more likely to be in dependent positions where they are research scientists but not faculty members. They are also less likely to be in industry. So I wonder to what degree these choices made by women with Ph.D.s are being determined by them, and what fraction of those choices are being determined by unconscious biases. I don’t think there are conscious biases anymore – or at least no one will admit to having them – but unconscious biases still exist. Even at Princeton, the molecular biology department has fewer female professors than male. Don’t get me wrong, we are doing better than most, but nationally the numbers do not suggest that the problem is solved.

DP: Do you have any last words of advice for undergraduates looking to enter science?

Tilghman: On the one hand, being a scientist is an extraordinarily wonderful way to spend your life. On the other hand, if you don’t love it you shouldn’t do it, because the sacrifices you make are not rewarded enough. People don’t usually talk about the economic sacrifice that you make if you are on the path to becoming a scientist, because you will forego an income that you will never make up for the rest of your life. It’s tough being poor for six years of grad school and then six years of a postdoc. Additionally, if your goal is to run your own research lab, your odds of reaching that goal are not very good. Ironically, my odds when I started my career were much better than they are today.