Lecture remembers pioneer of women in science

November 29, 2018

Members of the Brandeis community gathered at the Women’s Studies Research Center to hear Dr. Pnina Geraldine Abir-Am speak about the legacy of Carolyn Cohen, the first woman professor of biology at Brandeis. Cohen was a professor at Brandeis for almost half a decade before retiring. She passed away in December 2017.

Geraldine Abir-Am focused on her personal connection with Cohen, as well as the impact that Cohen had on leading the charge of women in science during her lifetime. Born in 1929, a time when men overwhelmed the scientific field, Geraldine Abir-Am highlighted all the struggles that Cohen overcame to reach the level that she did.

Cohen earned a BS in biology and physics from Bryn Mawr College, an all-girls school, in 1950. During her senior year, she was one of three students to receive prestigious fellowships to do research. Cohen was also one of the first women to obtain a PhD in biophysics from MIT in 1954, and did her postdoctoral work at King’s College in London. After being a research associate at MIT for a number of years, she transitioned to the Jimmy Fund Lab at Harvard Medical School as a staff scientist, before joining Brandeis staff in 1972, where she worked until her retirement.

Geraldine Abir-Am called it a “fluke” when she initially met Cohen, but was eternally grateful to have met her. “She acted as my ‘informant,’ in a sense,” Geraldine Abir-Am explained in her speech. “But not an informant in the present, but into the past.” Cohen provided Geraldine Abir-Am with information about the generation of scientists prior to her time. Cohen was too young for the previous generation of scientists, and was thus ignored when historians were compiling their histories.

Geraldine Abir-Am focused on a few key aspects that she believed helped shape Cohen into the famous figure she is today: gender, race and sexual orientation. As a female in the 1950s, Cohen was not expected to be in the lab, but in the household taking care of the family. “I was enrolled in a variety of classes in typing, cooking and sewing under the assumption, I suppose, that being a girl, I would become a homemaker or a stenographer,” said Cohen in a quote provided by Geraldine Abir-Am.

On the topic of race, Geraldine Abir-Am cited Cohen, saying that, “By the time I was attending Hunter (College), we had moved from 92nd to 110th & Broadway and I was relieved that I could now avoid the occasional packs of young bullies who would swoop down on my friends and me from Amsterdam Avenue to harass us with anti-semitic epithets.” Cohen was often asked by anti-Semites to change her name, but she always refused.

But probably the largest driving factor that influenced Cohen’s career was her same-sex orientation. Having a same-sex orientation often saved Cohen from being perceived as a “sexual target” by the male practitioners that she worked with, according to Geraldine Abir-Am. She was “perceived as a colleague and treated as one.” A strong-willed woman, Cohen viewed herself as a woman scientist whose career wouldn’t be affected by marriage, moving with her husband and raising a family. She did not put up with the harassment of her colleagues; she was intimidated by none.

While working as a research associate at MIT in 1957, Geraldine Abir-Am described Cohen as “on a plateau that went nowhere. They would forever be research associates.” Cohen said that “I wanted to find a place where I would be free to carry out research and where no one would tell me what to do, a very privileged place, as I was well aware.”

Cohen, along with Susan Lowey and Don Caspar, two other scientists who were working at the Jimmy Fund Lab (which was not as famous during this time), formed a commune that had “superb synergy,” according to testaments from Nobel Prize Laureates. When the lab was closing, no institutions were willing to hire the trio. However, Dr. Sidney Farber, a member of the Board of Trustees at Brandeis, knowing that the three of them would be much better working together than apart, convinced then director of Rosenstiel Center, Harlyn Halvorson, to hire the three.

All three were hired as a research unit and had teaching responsibilities as well. Cohen was a part of the biology department, Lowey was part of biochemistry and Caspar was part of physics. “This invented a new mode of women entering universities,” explained Geraldine Abir-Am. “Because two of the three members were women.”

Cohen also cited her excitement to be working at Brandeis. “In my view Brandeis is a rather unconventional academy, and we were, quite fittingly, a most unconventional group of scientists,” said Cohen. “Brandeis’ motto: to pursue ‘truth, even unto its most inner parts’ was fitting—we were thrilled at Brandeis.”

Cohen was a professor of biology at Brandeis until 2012, when she became an emerita in semi-retirement until 2017.

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