BU Professor Wins FASEB Women's Science Award

Citing the 22 years it took for her to gain tenure as a university professor, neuroendocrinologist Susan Leeman notes that her professional life has not been free of frustration. And she attributes much of this frustration to the fact that she is a woman. Moreover, the 63-year-old Leeman, recent winner of the Women's Excellence in Science Award, presented by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), says the career path for women in science today is not much easier t

May 17, 1993
Ron Kaufman
Citing the 22 years it took for her to gain tenure as a university professor, neuroendocrinologist Susan Leeman notes that her professional life has not been free of frustration. And she attributes much of this frustration to the fact that she is a woman. Moreover, the 63-year-old Leeman, recent winner of the Women's Excellence in Science Award, presented by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), says the career path for women in science today is not much easier than when she was starting out.

Leeman, a professor of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at Boston University who is credited with the discovery of two major peptides, sums it up succinctly: "Women do have a more difficult time than men."

The five-year-old Women's Excellence in Science Award was presented by FASEB on March 31 at the Experimental Biology '93 meeting in New Orleans. Accompanying the honor was a $10,000 research grant from the Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly & Co. Former winners of the award include University of California, Berkeley, immunologist Marian Koshland and Harvard Medical School cytologist Elizabeth Hay.

Leeman received her B.S. in physiology from Goucher College in Towson, Md., in 1951 and her Ph.D. in medical science from Radcliffe College in 1958. She is credited with the discovery of two peptide neurotransmitters, substance P and neurotensin, which are amino acid chains that assist in communication between nerve cells and sometimes act as hormones.

Leeman began her quest for tenure when she accepted an instructor position at Harvard University in 1958. The next year, she left for a postdoc at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "I stayed there for the next 12 years. They called me an adjunct professor and then assistant professor, but I was never given a full faculty position," she says. "I worked under Dr. Nathan Kaplan, who was very good to the women in his department. It was when he left [in 1968] that I had trouble."

Because she was never offered a "legitimate position" at Brandeis, she went back to Harvard in 1972 as an assistant professor in the Laboratory of Human Reproduction and Reproductive Biology. "I was in my 40s and had already discovered two peptides, and this was the first time I ever got a position," she says.

She stayed at Harvard until 1980. At this time, she says, affirmative action and women's rights were beginning to gain stature. "But once again, no one ever considered me for a tenured position. Maybe if I stood and fought them I could have forced them to give me a job," she says.

Leeman left Harvard for a tenured professorship in physiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She joined Boston University last year to help start its pharmacology department.

In 1991, Leeman became the first--and only--woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences in physiology and pharmacology.

Leeman says she will put the award money into her research on the regulation of substance P gene expression in dorsal root ganglia in diabetics.

FASEB is now accepting nominations for the 1994 Women's Excellence in Science Award. For information, write to Leah C. Valadez, FASEB Women's Excellence in Science Award, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, 9650 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, Md. 20814-3998; or call (301) 530-7092.


Harrison Echols, a molecular biologist who studied the functions of DNA, died April 11 at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 59. Echols had been a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, since 1969. He studied the bacterial virus lambda to try to determine the basic mechanisms of the attachment of a virus' DNA to that of a host cell.

Echols received his Ph.D. in physics in 1959 from the University of Wisconsin. His most cited paper, which has been referenced in nearly 300 papers, is "Genetic control of repression of alkaline phosphatase in E. coli," Journal of Molecular Biology, 3(4):425, 1961.