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Ada Lovelace Day – On Dr. Connie Eaves

For those who don’t know: Today – October 7th – is Ada Lovelace Day. It’s a day where you “share your story about a woman — whether an engineer, a scientist, a technologist or mathematician — who has inspired you to become who you are today.”

It would be remiss for me not to blog about Dr. Connie Eaves. For anyone who thinks I travel a lot, work long hours, or have a passion for evidence and data, I am really just a pale shadow when compared to this inspiring and globally recognized cancer researcher. For those not familiar with her – which is probably anyone outside the field of cancer research and not an avid reader of the journal Blood – you can catch her bio on Wikipedia here.

She is, of course, also my mom.

Obviously, if you are a woman (or a man) interested in getting into science – particularly human biology and stem cell research – I would point you to my mother (and father) as people to get to know, but for me her inspiration is much simpler. At a basic level, there are two invaluable gifts my mother has given me, which I feel are particularly salient to her scientific achievements.

The first, and most important, was the building blocks of critical thinking: To break down an argument and understand it from every angle, as well as dissect the evidence embedded within it. These lessons were hard ones. I learned a lot of it just through observation, and sometimes – more painfully – from trying to engage her in debate. I’ve seen graduate students tremble in fear about engaging my mother in debate. While my victories have been few, I’ve been doing it since probably the age of five or earlier, and it has helped shape my brain in powerful ways in which, I suspect, many masters or doctoral students would happily travel around the world to be exposed to. I am exceedingly lucky.

The second gift my mom bestowed me is her work ethic and drive. I have grown up believing that working for 12 hours, 7 days a week may actually be normal behaviour. There is good and bad in taking on such norms. Neither one of us probably thinks it is healthy when we skip eating all day because we zone out into our work. But that intensity has its upsides, and I’m grateful to have been exposed to it. Indeed, I’d like to think I work hard, but standing next to her, I still often just feel lazy.

I mention these two traits not just because they have had such a great impact on me, but also because I think they’re a reflection of what extraordinary skills were required by my mother to be a successful woman scientist embarking on a career in the 1960s. The simple fact is that in that era, as much as we’d like to think it was not true, I suspect that to be a women scientist – to get on tenure track – you had to be smarter and work harder than almost anyone around you. It is one reason why I think the women scientists of that generation are generally so remarkable. The sad truth is: They had to be.

The happy upside is that for me, purely selfishly, is I got the benefit of being raised by someone who survived and thrived in what I imagine was at times a hostile environment to women. Paradoxically, the benefits I enjoyed are those I would wish on any child in a heartbeat, while the asymmetric expectation are those I would wish on no one.

Happy Ada Lovelace mom.

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