A series of graduate student conversations with leading women biologists, at the Women in Science Symposium at Cornell April 2-3.

With only eight weeks until my Ph.D. defense, I am madly scrambling to finish my dissertation. For the past six years, I’ve strained every last neuron I have in my research on bird communication; now I have just two months to turn that effort into a cohesive story. At the same time, I’m trying to find a postdoctoral position that will boost my chances of landing a good faculty job in a few years. The combination of the pressure to finish and the uncertainty about my future sometimes throws me into a panic.

So imagine my delight when Dr. Jeanne Altmann, an eminent researcher in my field and a professor emeritus at Princeton, assured me that “there is more than one route [to success in academia]. There are lower-risk routes, but higher risk routes can be particularly interesting.”

And she should know!

Altmann and I talked during her visit to Cornell University for the Frontiers in the Life Sciences Symposium, which celebrated women’s research excellence. Altmann’s career studying baboons in Kenya has been illustrious, but she didn’t plan it out. To hear her describe it, she reached the top of her field largely through serendipity. I’m fairly certain that persistence, intelligence, a positive outlook, and an incredible ability to turn chance events into opportunities also played a big role in her success – but it’s a huge comfort to know that there is more than one route to achieving excellence.

Altmann’s career path

Altmann changed course several times even during her undergrad days. She started off in the late 1950’s as a mathematics major at UCLA, transferred to MIT sophomore year after marrying her boyfriend Stuart (then a student at Harvard), and then accompanied him to the University of Alberta. There, she received her bachelor’s degree in math and he studied primate foraging behavior. Along the way, she and Stuart had two children. Altmann put her math skills to use as a data analyst in a lab studying human childhood and later by developing remedial math curricula in Georgia during desegregation.

When her own children started school, Altmann began her graduate degree in biology at the University of Chicago, partly because she thought studying biology would be more compatible with being a mother than studying mathematics. Through her dissertation work, she became committed to studying how social and familial interactions affect individual baboons, a research program that she’s continued for over 35 years. But she chose baboons over a more sociological or psychological study on humans mostly by chance: The grant she wrote on baboons was funded, and the others weren’t.

Although she doesn’t dwell on it, Altmann faced plenty of hurdles as a woman in science. At UCLA, she was one of three women in a class of about 100 undergraduate math majors. The men in the class were assigned academic advisors, but the women were told the faculty didn’t want to waste time advising the women – assuming that the women would not be serious academics.

The pattern repeated itself: At the University of Alberta, a potential advisor in the honors program lost interest in Altmann upon learning that she was pregnant. Altmann’s employment opportunities were limited because of a lack of child-care options, and she couldn’t collaborate effectively with her husband on his primate work because of anti-nepotism laws. The Altmanns knew many other faculty couples in which both the wife and the husband were highly educated, but the husband was a faculty member and the wife was relegated to a support role without being recognized as an independent researcher. Many of these couples chose not to have children in order to focus on their careers.

Two things struck me as I listened to Altmann describe these experiences.

First, I felt profoundly grateful that I have not faced such overt sexism. There are still horror stories related to gender, women are still under-represented in the top positions in academia, and researchers are still struggling to understand the cause of that under-representation. From my standpoint, though, things have improved substantially: at least institutionalized sexism is no longer condoned, and there is a community of people who care deeply about gender issues in science.

Second, Altmann showed no signs of bitterness or resentment for the prejudice she’d encountered as a young woman – a remarkable reflection on her positive attitude. I’m not sure that I would have the fortitude to roll with the punches and come up smiling as she has.

Altmann took events that many people would view with despair and turned them into positives. Take, for instance, Altmann’s 1974 paper about observational methods, which has been cited an amazing 7,902 times according to Google Scholar. (To put things into perspective, I would be thrilled to have one of my papers cited only 100 times in the next 40 years!) Though the paper has been highly influential, it had a rough beginning. Altmann saw that a paper about unbiased sampling and analysis methods was needed in the field of behavioral ecology, and, from an outsider’s perspective, she was uniquely qualified to write it. She had a strong background in mathematics and data analysis, and she was familiar with anthropological research methods, which at that point were generally more rigorous than the methods in behavioral ecology.

These qualifications arose, however, because of things that she couldn’t do. She was a biologist rather than a mathematician partly because she decided not to try to balance motherhood with a career in mathematics; she had acquired skills in data analysis when she couldn’t pursue other job options; and her background in human research also came from a job she’d taken when her options were limited. Her skill set was formed not only by her intellectual preferences, but also in response to circumstance and external limitations imposed on her. From this skill set, she wrote a paper that is probably one of the most-cited papers in behavioral ecology.

A non-invasive approach to studying animal behavior

Altmann’s approach to fieldwork follows a similar philosophy of turning lemons into lemonade. Rather than trying to alter how her study animals behave, Altmann and her research team make painstakingly careful observations of the natural behaviors of the baboon troops they follow. Again drawing on her mathematical background, she ensures that the data are reliable through meticulous randomizations. She then searches for non-invasive ways to collect the requisite data for specific research questions.

For example, to test hypotheses about the endocrinology of baboon social lives, Altmann needed a non-invasive way to collect hormones. To fully understand the family relationships in the baboons, she needed genetic data. It turns out that fecal samples are a gold mine of information for both of these questions. Sample cups in hand, Altmann and her colleagues patiently wait for the baboons to “make a donation” to the fecal sample collection, then scoop up the sample once the animal is out of the way.

Similarly, she wanted to track the growth of young baboons by getting frequent weight measurements, but she didn’t want to have to capture them time after time. Altmann had noted the propensity of human children to climb on anything and everything, and she guessed – correctly – that baboon juveniles would do the same. In what became one of her favorite studies, she collected growth rate data on a large number of animals simply by supplying them with a scale that represented an irresistible opportunity to climb.

What we’ve learned about baboons

During her visit to Cornell, Altmann summarized some of the recent data she’s collected in the baboon population. Corticosterone, a stress hormone, is surprisingly high in alpha males; except for the alpha males, corticosterone is lower in higher-ranked males. In females, rank doesn’t correlate with hormonal state. Females do form long-term social bonds with other females, and females with stronger friendships raise offspring more successfully. Altmann’s next questions are whether these social interactions help mitigate the negative effects of being low-ranking, and how social bonds affect individual variation in reproductive success.

Altmann’s research represents a stellar contribution to the field of behavioral ecology, especially when you consider that she began her college education with no intention of pursuing a career in academia. Women in academia weren’t the norm in that era; her grandmother even balked at giving her a slide rule for high school graduation, thinking that it was not an appropriate gift for a young woman. (They reached a compromise: that she would get a slide rule so long as it was small enough to fit inside a lady-like purse). I’m grateful to Altmann and women like her for making my progress in academia so much easier. By demonstrating to the world that a woman can be an excellent scientist, she has helped tear down the hurdles that blocked her path, making my own path that much easier.

Previously in this series:

Serendipity and Science: 30 Minutes with Dr. Sharon Long

The Co-Evolution of Insects, Plants and a Career

Empirically dancing your way to the top – How Nicole Dubilier does it!