October 18, 2011 | Science and Technology

Woman of the Week: Shirley Tilghman

Princeton's first female president wants more women on faculty and more women in the sciences, and she's not afraid to ruffle feathers to make it happen.

Woman of the Week: Shirley Tilghman

By Anna Louie Sussman

Shirley Tilghman, an internationally renowned molecular biologist and Princeton University’s first female president, likes to tell the story of how as a single mother of two small children, she would make to time to read the Sunday New York Times. First, she would drive around until they fell asleep.  Then, she would pull over to the side of the road and pounce on her paper, starting with the Week in Review. 

“I often wondered what people thought of me as I huddled in my car, frantically trying to get through the next section before my children woke up,” she told a gathering of female scientists and engineers at the launch of Columbia University’s ADVANCE program to recruit and retain women in the sciences.

Tilghman, 65, tires easily of the notion that working mothers can’t have it all, since she herself is living proof.  But it does take focus, discipline and a good dose of creativity.

Her innovative response to the newspaper conundrum is an example of what happens when a brilliant scientific mind addresses the minutiae of daily life, and it’s a quality that has served her well in the demanding task of administrating a world-class university.

“Over the many years I’ve known her, I’ve been amazed at her ability to sort through extremely complex issues and come up with the ideal solution,” said Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health.  “That’s just what you want in a scientist, as well as a university president! So, I’m not surprised that she has excelled at both.”

“Excelled” might be underselling it.  Her achievements are formidable: she helped clone the first mammalian gene—a mouse gene that codes a component of red blood cells, and later became a pioneer in the field mammalian developmental genetics.  She served as a member of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research.  She and her colleagues also discovered the phenomenon known as “genetic imprinting,” in which only the genes of one parent are expressed in an embryo.  Then there’s the Human Genome Project, in which scientists undertook the mapping of all 3 billion letters in the human DNA instruction book.  As a member of a prestigious National Research Council panel that set the project in motion, Dr. Tilghman not only “helped to give birth to the Human Genome Project” with her enthusiastic endorsement, but insisted that it also analyze the genomes of other organisms, such as the fruit fly, roundworm, and mouse.

“Not only did researchers learn how to sequence DNA using these simpler animals,” said Dr. Collins, “[but] it turns out that comparing these genomes to the human genome has opened amazing new windows into human biology, both in health and disease.”

Born in Toronto in 1946, Shirley Marie Caldwell grew up in a tightly-knit family whom she credits for giving her the self-confidence she needed to succeed.  Her father was a banker, and her mother a homemaker, and she was the second of four daughters. Always an avid athlete and top student, Tilghman discovered her passion for science when she was in high school.  While her peers were choosing which Beatle to have a crush on, Dr. Tilghman’s eyes roamed elsewhere. 

“I truly fell in love when I encountered the Periodic Table [of Elements] in high school,” she told an audience at her undergraduate alma mater, Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada.

Since becoming university president in 2001, Tilghman has had to stop researching, but she remains a vigorous advocate of recruiting and retaining women in the sciences.  Among her first acts as president was the appointment of a task force examining the status of women faculty in the sciences and engineering over the past decade, which reported that in 2002, women made up 13% of the tenured faculty in the natural sciences and engineering.  It also found that women were significantly less satisfied in their jobs and reported lower collegiality within their departments.  In response, she has instituted policies – like an automatic one-year tenure extension when a child is born for both female and male faculty, and a specially appointed liaison to help spouses of professors find employment – that will help prevent the “leaky pipeline” of women dropping out of the sciences.

The appointment of four women to high-profile positions at Princeton, including Amy Gutmann, now President of the University of Pennsylvania, and Anne-Marie Slaughter as dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, raised questions about affirmative action culminating in a 2004 cover article in the conservative student magazine The Princeton Tory entitled “The Modern Mommy University.” She told reporters at the time she was disappointed that the female students -- ''the most talented women in the country,” as she described them – didn’t raise their voices in protest. The recent findings of another task force devoted to undergraduate women’s leadership prompted her to create several bodies for mentorship, and a new four-year residential women’s college where freshman and sophomores will live alongside upperclassmen. 

This year, she moved to ban freshman from participating in Greek organizations, which prompted blowback from the student body, including an opinion piece in the campus paper entitled “Be Honest With Me When You Lie, Shirley.”  David Will, a sophomore who penned a response in her defense that enumerated her many achievements in making Princeton’s campus more equitable, called it a “repugnant and misogynistic” attack. 

Fortunately, she benefits from what her close friend and colleague Professor Virginia Zakian describes as “blinders.”  With few female role models in their chosen field of molecular biology, Zakian said, she once found herself wondering aloud to Tilghman, “What made me think I was going to do that?  I must have had blinders on.” 

“She said, ‘That’s just it, we did have blinders on, and that’s probably why we made it.  By being singleminded, and stubborn,’” Zakian recalled.  But she stressed that in spite of her singular achievements, Tilghman’s most impressive quality is how normal and down-to-earth she is.

“She’s in the realm of the possible, which makes me feel like any little girl can grow up to be president of a major university,” said Zakian.

Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.