Since my last column, life intervened to remind me that role models don’t have to be in your field, they just need to teach you something important.
March 11, 2015
Hazeltine: Lessons From Grammy, An Original Woman in STEM
Columnist Lizzy Hazeltine reflects on her scientist-grandma's determination, smarts and heart after her recent passing.
I’ve been spending more than a little time being grateful to one of my first role models, Ruth Cox Cusick, or Grammy, to me.
She was the first scientist I met, and my first babysitter. She lived a mile away from my childhood home and helped raise me while my parents built their business. Re-reading her life as summarized in her obituary, I was reminded what an extraordinary life she made for herself. In an era where there were deep grooves carved for women’s expected futures, she exercised an uncommon amount of self-determination.
On the eve of WWII, she graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in chemistry and started working for DuPont’s wartime efforts. She told me stories from that era often, about being one of the few women—and one of the only female scientists. She joined a lab where her principal investigator (PI) insisted that she focus solely on her research into artificial rubber compounds, rather than one where the prospective PI expected her to make coffee and handle all the admin work.
Now, we’d call her a woman in STEM. But then, she was following her intellectual bliss. Her engineer father had ensured that her curiosity grew when other dads would have poo-pooed her scientific inclination. She passed on that gift of unconditional encouragement to her kids.
She shared that curiosity generously. Thanks to her, I arrived at elementary school having grown sucrose and sodium crystals in jars, exploded baking soda and vinegar film canister bombs, and layered liquids according to their density. It was third grade before I learned an experiment she hadn’t already taught me.
She was always ready to liberally mix science and compassion by including people in the things she cared about. I remember when she taught me how to identify loggerhead sea turtle nests, and together, we protected the hatchlings from ghost crabs and seagulls. No wonder her granddaughters have largely pursued careers in STEM. (Of my generation, I’m one of the few weirdo females who hasn’t gone into engineering.)
Curiosity and intellectual rigor drove her to chemistry and its explanations of the world. She couldn’t stay away. After raising seven kids, she went back to school in her 50s, sitting in organic chemistry beside 20-year-olds. She happily went back to work. Doing that took an uncommon level of guts and drive.
She wasn’t afraid to be what she wanted to be, and for her, that meant mixing intellectual rigor and big heartedness. The balance between those two shifted over the course of her life, but she was always herself, ever evolving.