Northrop Alumnae Blaze a Scientific Trail
Posted 10/13/2015 03:21PM

By Jessie Van Berkel

This article originally ran in the July 2011 issue of The Blake School Bulletin and is reposted here in honor of Ada Lovelace Day (October 13), an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.

One established a new order of organisms. Another received the nation's greatest award for biomedical research and medicine. A third is science adviser to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

The women who graduated from Northrop Collegiate School –– the grandmother of today's Blake –– in the 1950s, '60s and '70s blazed their way in the sciences at a time when female science professors and researchers were almost nonexistent.

Northrop, the eldest predecessor of The Blake School, was an all-girls private school established in 1900 that emphasized a well-rounded liberal arts education. In 1974, it merged with Highcroft County Day School and Blake School. The class sizes of Northrop, like today's Blake, were small, and many students remain friends today. Reflecting on their years at Northrop, alumnae say classmates pushed one another to succeed and teachers had high expectations of their students.

The women profiled in this article fondly recall the science courses at Northrop, including biology, chemistry and physics, which sparked their interest, and the teachers who provided inspiring female role models.

"I never knew that there was anything I couldn't do because I was a female," says class of 1968 alumna and ornithologist Christine Sheppard. "No matter what gender, the school expected students to achieve their full potential. It just wasn't questioned."

Terry Andreas, Class of 1960
Decades ago, Terry Andreas watched as one of the children living with her struggled to grasp fractions –– numbers scrawled on a chalkboard were distant and confusing to the girl. Then, one day, the child was making chocolate chip cookies with limited chips, and Andreas told her to use a third of all the ingredients. Suddenly, fractions clicked.

In that moment, Andreas saw the need for hands-on learning through which students could recognize the results of their labor. So 30 years ago she founded The School for Field Studies with four others. The school is "the nation's oldest and largest environmental study abroad program, combining hands-on environmental studies with scientific research to develop sustainable solutions to critical environmental problems," according to its website.

Andreas did not have a degree in environmental science — she graduated from Boston University as a journalism major. Rather, she had a passion for educating children. The idea of learning outside the classroom had roots in Andreas's education at Northrop, where a lesson about earthworms meant going out in the dirt by the playground and digging for them, she says. There, she had a group of teachers who were best friends. "And it seemed like all they cared about in the world is that we did well and we grew up to think well of ourselves."

At Northrop, getting students out of the classroom "was the kind of thing our teachers were comfortable with doing," Andreas says, and she didn't find that in her own children's classes. "So when the four of us [founders of The School for Field Studies] were talking about how to encourage kids to do science, that's what we came up with. Get out there and try it."

Beatrice Crosby Booth, Class of 1956
A Minnesota native, Beatrice Crosby Booth did not spend any time near the ocean during her childhood, though she was addicted to the lake by her home. She loved natural history and had a knack for it — she camped and hiked in the summer and excelled in math and science.

When she attended Radcliffe College, a marine ecology-focused professor, George Clarke, sparked her interest in the sea. That interest later blossomed at the University of Washington, where she earned a master's degree in oceanography and was the first female graduate student in her department. She stayed at the school and ascended to principal oceanographer.

For 26 years, Beatrice Booth researched the phytoplankton of arctic and subarctic waters and published 26 scientific articles. In a modest letter to her family and friends describing her career, Booth, who is now retired, said: "My work was certainly not earth-shaking, but I operated at the frontier of exploring the submicroscopic life in the oceans, that is, forms which cannot be identified or studied in a normal compound microscope."

Indeed she has. Booth discovered and described a new order and family of algae, called Parmales. She also recognized that tiny organisms with a diameter of less than five micrometers contribute greatly to the biomass of photosynthetic organisms. Although Booth spent most of her time researching on dry land in Washington, she also garnered many sea stories from trips on a research ship — including a monthlong excursion in the northern Baffin Bay, where she floated amid icebergs, collecting samples from an icebreaker.

Patricia Meller Grambsch, Class of 1967
A small office on the edge of the University of Minnesota campus brims with notes and articles, its tall bookshelves laden with volumes on science and statistics. Patricia Grambsch, a slight, energetic woman, sits in the middle. The room reflects her full career.

Grambsch, a biostatistics associate professor in the University's School of Public Health, is juggling a number of projects. Her passion for hard work dates back to high school, when she was a "superbooker," Grambsch says. "I wanted to do it all, and do it all well."

In her junior year at Northrop, she was determined to take four classes instead of the average five because she wanted to fully master the subjects. But her physics and calculus teacher, Sara Hill, was concerned that she would be bored. Hill loaded her up with physics books, furthering Grambsch's interest in math and science. In her senior year at Northrop, a classic experiment cemented her decision to pursue science outside of the lab: she was given the honor of dropping an egg at a target from three floors above for a physics lab project. And she missed.

"I was mortified, horrified, terribly embarrassed! ... So, I liked science, but it wasn't going to be in lab science," Grambsch says. She aimed for a more mathematical field, ending up in biostatistics. Her career has included everything from brain science research in Bell Labs to extending the analysis model used to predict survival of a patient at the Mayo Clinic. She's immersed herself in research and pays little attention to things like newspapers. "I'm doing the things that interest me, and the everyday world doesn't," she says. But the impact of her work with determining patient survival has been felt worldwide. She helped further the Cox model, which looks at variables and analyzes survival. She made it more widely applicable and co-authored a book that serves as a modern overview of the model and has received high praise from statisticians. For Grambsch, the importance of her work was crystallized in a hospital room at the Mayo Clinic. She sat in as a doctor told a sick woman in her 30s and her husband that the woman was going to die.

"They gave her a plot of her predicted survival from our model," Grambsch says. "And I'm looking at this thing and looking at this thing, and I suddenly realized what my responsibility as a statistician had to be. I had to give them the best model I possibly could."

Marcia McNutt, Class of 1970
The headmistress at Northrop described Marcia McNutt's 1970 graduating class as "exceptional." The top students were numerous, McNutt says, and "we all kicked each other up, in terms of rising to our best."

And McNutt has risen high — she's the first female director in the 130-year history of the United States Geological Survey, the government agency charged with collecting, analyzing and presenting information on natural disasters and resources and environmental health.

McNutt has been interested in science since junior high, and even then, she says, "I always thought of myself as doing a field of science that was outdoors." It was her time in Ms. Hill's class that made her decide to enter physics. "[Hill] was so patient and just so enthusiastic about the subjects. You couldn't help but be drawn in," McNutt says.

She entered plate tectonics and geophysics at a transformative time for the field, when there was explosive growth. "It was like going into physics right after Einstein proposed the theory of relativity," McNutt says. She attended Colorado College and later received her Ph.D. in earth sciences from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She quickly grew to prominence, leading numerous oceanographic expeditions and becoming president and CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. She was named President Barack Obama's nominee for USGS director in 2009.

"My thought when it was announced was, well, what am I getting myself into?" McNutt says. That question has echoed in her mind over the past year and a half. She stepped on board at the agency in time to meet the most challenging series of environmental disasters in recent history.

She has led the organization's approximately 10,000 scientists, administrative workers and technicians in handling everything from tornadoes and Mississippi River floods to earthquakes in Haiti and Chile to the volcanic eruption in Iceland and the BP oil spill.

"It's hard for me to know what the day-to-day job is because we've been in crisis mode for so much," she says, although she's been able to restructure the organization to increase efficiency and diversified its staff, accomplishments she's proud of. "The opportunity to make an impact is certainly much greater here. I'm sure when it's all over, I'll be very happy I did it," she says, but notes that wherever she heads next, it will be in the private sector.

Christine Sheppard, Class of 1968
It started one Christmas when she was very young. Christine Sheppard was digging in her mother's closet and came across a biology book her parents bought for her. "I had read most of the book by the time it went under the tree," Sheppard says, laughing. Her love of biology had begun.

Sheppard now works at the American Bird Conservancy and was formerly the curator of birds at the Bronx Zoo. At the Conservancy, she focuses on an issue that many Americans see each year but few dwell on: bird collisions with glass. Between 100 million and a billion birds die annually in the United States from hitting glass windows, Sheppard says, and her efforts to prevent those deaths extend back to her time working at the Bronx Zoo. There, zoo employees taught the birds that were kept in glass-fronted exhibits about the presence of glass to prevent injury. She currently spends a lot of time developing and promoting bird-friendly policies and gets out of the office to conduct research in Pittsburgh on what materials birds will avoid.

When Sheppard graduated from Northrop in 1968, she knew she wanted to be in the sciences. But she happened into ornithology, the study of birds, by accident. When she began working on her Ph.D. at Cornell University, all of the professors in areas she was interested in were on sabbatical. So Sheppard ended up worked with Tom Cade, an ornithologist and falconer. Cade was breeding falcons in captivity as a way to protect the endangered species. Sheppard was intrigued by the idea, which eventually lead her into the position of curatorial intern at the Bronx Zoo. She remained at the zoo for 30 years, working her way up to curator and chair of the ornithology department.

Many of the skills that helped Sheppard in her career stem from her years at Northrop, she says. It's where she learned to speak and write well, and, most importantly, Sheppard says, it's where she learned critical thought. "I honestly think I got a better education at Northrop than I did after that," she says. "Much of what I use in my life is on the foundation Northrop gave me."

Joan Argetsinger Steitz, Class of 1958
When Joan Steitz graduated from Antioch College, she had never seen a female science professor or lab head. She didn't even think it was a possibility and decided she'd have to enter medicine instead. Then she spent a summer in the lab of University of Minnesota professor Joseph Gall, where she ran her own project looking for DNA and RNA in an organelle.

"By August 1, I decided I was so enthralled that I just didn't care if I had any prospects of becoming a scientist. I just loved doing research."

Since Steitz thought she'd never become a professor, she took chances. When doing postdoctoral work at Cambridge, England, she took on a challenging project on ribosome binding sites that many men, who were bent on publishing results in order to become faculty, had rejected as too risky. But she succeeded. The project gained international attention and when she returned to the United States, her work in Cambridge, along with the advent of the women's movement in the '70s, cleared the way for Steitz to pursue her scientific passion.

She's currently a professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale, where she's worked for 40 years. Steitz is best known for discovering and characterizing the role of small ribonucleoproteins and has won numerous awards, including the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, the highest valued prize in medicine in the United States.

When Steitz thinks back on her Northrop days, "silly" science-related memories stand out. She recalls getting butyric acid on her hands so that they smelled for days, and her tenth grade biology teacher, Marjorie Harrison, playing birdsongs for the class and taking the students on walks in the woods to identify the trees. She also remembers the small classes that let her know where she stood and the supportive influence of her teachers.

Her classes in biology, chemistry and physics at Northrop prepared her well for the future, Steitz says. So well that when she had to take the MCATs – the test to get into medical school — she received a high score despite never having taken a biology class in college. All she had to do, Steitz says, was study what Ms. Harrison taught her.